By Giles Hanglin
Are we seeing the end of gridlock for BESS connection applications?
The time it takes to connect low carbon energy projects to the GB grid is so slow, that a recent BBC report estimates there are projects, spanning wind, solar and battery storage, collectively worth more than £200bn sitting in the queue. With many projects waiting as long as 10, even 15, years the UK risks missing its net zero targets.
In a policy review launched in May Ofgem pledged reforms will take place to tighten up processes that favour a “first-come, first-serve” approach, which in turn could flush out highly speculative and potentially unviable clean energy projects and prioritise those that are matured and shovel-ready.
Simultaneously National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) has begun reassessing and remodelling the connection times for contracted low carbon energy projects in the transmission queue, which is to be implemented by March 2024. The steps being taken are outlined in ESO’s five-point plan, which aims to speed up the connections process. As part of this plan battery energy storage system (BESS) project developers have been told they will soon be offered an interim option for their projects to connect to the network sooner, but with the caveat that they may be required to turn off more frequently when the system is under stress without initially being paid to do so.
The Energy Networks Association (ENA) is pleased Ofgem has listened to the industry’s recommendations to accelerate connections by moving away from a “first come, first served” regime towards a “first ready, first connected” model. By the association’s estimates, the industry has received 164GW of new connection requests in the year to October 2022 alone, around three times the capacity of the GB grid today.
In addition to ESO’s five point plant, ENA’s Strategic Connections Group is also focused on speeding up connections. One priority is to align treatment of energy storage by distribution network operators (DNOs), by standardising non-firm connection offerings to BESS customers, whichever network their projects are on, plus other measures around modelling. This will unlock “sterilised” capacity held by contracted storage customers.
Windows of constraint
More immediately, DNO UKPN has begun rolling out measures that will reduce the time it takes to connect storage projects. During a recent update on industry initiatives, UKPN said BESS developers with projects on its networks will be provided with seasonal fixed windows, based on historical data, which highlight times of high constraints on the network. This means storage systems can avoid operating during these times to avoid curtailment as well as operate in the opposite direction to alleviate constraints.
Storage developers with projects on UKPN’s network supplying Burwell and Eaton Socon in Cambridgeshire have been the first to receive year-ahead windows. Roll-out of windows based on day ahead load forecast and day ahead wind/solar forecast (using UKPN forecasting) to enable maximum BESS import and export profiles is aimed for later this year. An even more accurate approach that also incorporates BESS day ahead forecast will be launched in 2024.
Meanwhile, ENA is tackling an issue that contributes to longer lead times for those storage and other low carbon energy projects experiencing longer delays where their projects seeking distribution network connections are also dependent on transmission reinforcement. Such projects total around 28GW of capacity across all distribution networks.
Easing complex connections where Transmission & Distribution (T&D) networks meet
To address this issue ENA is working on clearer, more consistent technical limits between T&D, to accelerate smaller, more agile projects that are ready to connect. DNOs working in coordination with ESO will be able to manage connections within agreed technical limits at the points where the national transmission network connects to regional distribution networks – Grid Supply Point (GSP).
This will be rolled out in a phased approach across GB.
Secondly, a coordinated approach to how the queue is managed between T&D networks will be implemented for generation/exporting distributed energy resources (small scale generation and battery storage) that are still dependent on both transmission and distribution network capacity. This will improve clarity of queue management and the ability of distribution network operators to manage connections within boundary limits agreed by the ESO.
Ofgem’s policy review will look at potential options to be implemented to allocate scarce network capacity. This includes more strictly controlled access to the queue in order to fast-track projects, possibly moving to centralised planning at national and regional level, if progress does not improve.
Longer term reforms
The regulator’s policy review comes ahead of a joint-action plan on connections with Department of Energy Security & Net Zero due later in the summer.
In its “Delivering for 2035: Upgrading the grid for a secure, clean and affordable energy future” report, published in May, ESO highlighted several key areas where action is needed to transform the UK electricity networks. Beyond a shift from a “first come, first served” to “connect or move” connections process, the report is also calling for reforms to the planning system, centred on a strategic clean energy vision.
This would require finalising the National Policy Statements by the summer, as an immediate first step, to ensure they provide “greater clarity and authority on the need, pace and urgency of energy related Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs)”.
In recent years, decarbonisation policies, coupled with historically low levels of cheap debt, plus other factors, has supercharged interest in renewable energy, creating conditions for speculative development. The legacy T&D system, which evolved to deliver electricity from large, centralised dispatchable power plants, quickly became ill-equipped to sift out and prioritise those shovel-ready projects among numerous applications for grid connections for distributed generation sources, resulting in the longest grid connection times in Europe.
As a BESS developer focused on delivering high quality projects, with those considered construction-ready or progressing to this phase totalling 437MW, Cambridge Power is fully behind the steps being taken but it makes one wonder if reforms, which the industry has been calling for, had been implemented sooner, how much greener, cheaper and more self-sufficient Britain’s energy system would be today. Grid connections, planning applications, are processes that energy infrastructure projects have to complete in order to get built and delays are inevitable. But it should not add years and years to the time it takes to prepare a construction-ready project. The upshot is that we all pay more for our energy.