Government's progress on infrastructure 'decidedly mixed' last year but 2020 offers major opportunities, says advisory body
Increasing grid flexibility and maintaining access to EU energy markets to support clean power development should be top government priorities in 2020, according to the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), which today called for a clear plan to deliver the "world class infrastructure that the UK needs".
The NIC - the UK's independent infrastructure advisory body - set out a number of recommendations today in its annual assessment of government progress towards key infrastructure priorities, including boosting transport connectivity and decarbonising the energy system.
The Commission said there had in recent years been "decidedly mixed" progress on infrastructure development, but that the government had an opportunity in 2020 to "avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and to meet the challenge of climate change".
It said political uncertainty over the past year had prompted "prevarication and delay" on several projects, but that the first few weeks of 2020 "had seen a marked shift in momentum" with major rail announcements such as the government's backing for the HS2 high speed rail project and fresh commitments to deliver on the UK's net zero emissions goal.
NIC therefore urged the government to capitalise on the new momentum following the general election by quickly giving its blessing and funding support to the planned Crossrail 2 transport project in London in order to avoid further delays and cost increases.
The body also welcomed the passing of the UK's 2050 net zero target into law last year, as well as the government's plans to build 40GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030 and bring forward its proposed fossil fuel car phase out to 2035 at the latest. But it said much more could be achieved in 2020 to help build greener infrastructure in support of the net zero target.
Most notably, the progress report calls on the government to place driving flexibility into the electricity system front and centre in its 2020 priorities, arguing that emerging flexible grid technologies provide a crucial pillar of a decarbonised energy grid.
Specifically, it said the UK should look to maintain access to future electricity interconnector projects and Europe's energy markets after leaving the EU in order to support decarbonisation, and for the Electricity Act to be amended to define energy storage as a distinct subset of power generation.
It also said the government should set out a clear level of ambition for overall system flexibility in support of demand side response services and balancing technologies in 2020, and to proactively facilitate the transition towards more decentralised energy networks.
"The challenge of moving to a highly renewable energy system and achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions underlines the importance of creating an electricity system with high flexibility," the report states.
The report comes just a day after a study from analyst firm Cornwall Insight highlighted how the wind farms were paid a record £30.9m to switch off in January after the failure of a Western Link HVDC. "The Western Link was designed to accommodate the increasingly high volume of power generated in Scotland and prevent transmission bottlenecks," said Lee Drummee, analyst at Cornwall Insight. "But since commissioning the cable has been fraught with issues."
He added that the "availability of the link makes a clear difference", given that in December 2019 there was a similarly high wind output of 5.6TWh, but lower curtailment payments because the Western Link was available. "Avoiding constraints not only allows more volumes of renewable power to flow onto the Grid but reduces the amount of money that National Grid has to pay to turn off wind farms in Scotland," he said. "However, the reliability of the Western Link will need to be solved for its full potential to be realised. As more onshore wind develops, especially in Scotland, the problems of constraints will need to continue to be actively managed."
Advocates of flexible grid technologies maintain they can play a key role in tackling curtailment payments, as energy storage and demand respose services, coupled with grid improvements, can minimise the number of times wind farms have to be turned off to balance the grid.
The new NIC report also comes as the government prepares to issue its formal response in the coming months - potentially alongside next month's Budget - to the Commission's 2018 assessment, which called for a sweeping overhaul of UK infrastructure to prepare the country for the worsening impacts of climate change. Its recommendations included increasing the rollout of EVs, boosting climate resilience measure, and rethinking the government's plans for a fleet of new nuclear power stations in favour of renewables.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was considering a request for comment at the time of going to press.
Separately, the NIC announced yesterday that James Heath - currently director of digital infrastructure at the government's Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) - has been appointed to take over as its new CEO.
Heath, who led a major review of telecoms infrastructure and supply chains at DCMS and has also previously worked as director of policy at the BBC, will take up the role in the spring, after current CEO Phil Graham steps down, the NIC said.
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