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Interconnection is the solution to the energy trilemma

Network development mapThis post is by Paul Arwas who has over 20 years’ experience as a professional consultant, specialising in renewable energy and energy services.  Paul has advised governments on energy policy and some of the leading global energy companies on strategy and technology issues.

No doubt you will have heard about the energy trilemma.  Experts say we can have one or two out of a choice of secure, cheap or low carbon energy, but not all three.

But they are missing an obvious way of securing all three.  Sources of secure, cheap and low carbon energy exist and they are closer to London than Glasgow. These sources lie outside the UK, and because they don’t feature in economists’ models and are outside the ken of many vested interests, they are the Cinderella of energy policy.

A simple, reliable way to access abundant sources of energy
The key to accessing these sources are interconnectors, linking our electricity grid with those abroad.  They’re no more than a thick piece of wire: a  simple, reliable technology that the world is very familiar with. They may not have wow factor but, equally, they come without new technology risk and without the familiar rollercoaster ride  for big infrastructure projects of huge budget overruns and long delays.

So where do we connect to gain this secure, cheap and low carbon energy?

First, turn your eyes to the south.  An observer from Mars might wonder why on earth the UK consumer is being asked to pay a fortune to build nuclear power stations here when there are  oodles of them in France.  France has 58 nuclear reactors and another one being built; it is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity, has a grid that emits seven times less carbon than ours and has the lowest power prices in the EU (according to Eurostat, using data for industrial consumers for H2 2013). Two interconnectors with France are on the books of developers, yet progress is achingly slow.

If, for purely historic reasons, linking further with an ancient enemy seems like a bad idea, then turn your eyes to the north east.  Norway has almost unimaginable quantities of hydro power.  This is secure, cheap and utterly low carbon energy.  Eurlectric, the trade body for utilities, says that Norway could nearly double its hydro capacity if it wanted to.

And, if France or Norway doesn’t grab you, then look further north to Iceland, which also has vast quantities of secure, cheap and utterly low carbon energy, based on geothermal as well as hydro power.

Investment in interconnection is urgently needed
National Grid has estimated that doubling our current interconnector capacity of 4GW will save us up to £1 billion a year by 2020, or up to £13 per household a year, by exploiting differences between GB and European wholesale electricity prices. DECC commissioned work has indicated that, by 2040, 20GW or more of interconnector capacity makes sense.

At present, developers are lining up to build interconnectors. The government needs urgently to press on and establish the regulatory and legislative framework to accelerate interconnector investment.

The UK is a proud maritime trading nation.  It should be second nature to us to trade as the best way to deal with a problem.  We can and should use trade to help resolve the energy trilemma and interconnectors are the key to doing so. Building new interconnectors should be our number one energy priority.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.