The UK government must continue to work closely with the EU to develop cross-border electricity cable connections after Brexit if it is to ensure the lowest-cost pathway to decarbonisation.
That is the headline conclusion of a new policy paper from climate policy think tank E3G, which was released on Monday, and which argues electricity interconnectors physically linking the UK and EU power grids are becoming increasingly important to the delivery of climate and energy goals, as they can help boost energy security and flexibility amid rising renewable energy capacity on the grid.
Interconnectors should therefore be at the top of UK priorities during its negotiations with the EU over the two parties’ post-Brexit relationship, as they can play a key role in cost effectively meeting climate change targets.
Recent studies have warned that leaving the EU’s single market for electricity without a deal could “turn back the clock” for the UK and end up costing consumers up to £270m a year.
But while Brexit threatens to make development and operation of interconnectors between the UK and the EU more difficult – even if a deal is a agreed – the paper argues that, whatever the outcome of negotiations, the UK should press ahead with building more interconnector capacity regardless, concluding that it represents a “no-regrets” option as the UK attempts to decarbonise the electricity system at the lowest cost.
“Though leaving the EU makes interconnector development and operation more difficult, the rationale for building them remains the same,” said E3G policy advisor Joseph Dutton, who authored the paper. “The UK should therefore continue to expand regional electricity interconnection and prioritise interconnector development in the future relationship negotiations with the EU.”
Interconnectors are cross-border high voltage cables which link separate electricity grids and systems, allowing the transmission and trade of power between national markets.
At present the UK power system is currently linked via four high voltage direct current (HVDC) interconnectors to EU markets, including France, the Netherlands, and the island of Ireland. A fifth connection with Belgium is set to come online this year.
Last year interconnectors provided six per cent of electricity supply in the UK, making it a net importer of power across these cables. The government also currently envisages the development of at least 9GW of additional capacity as part of its broader policy to decarbonise the energy system.
As a result, imports of electricity to the UK are expected to more than triple by 2025, with interconnectors supplying nearly a third of domestic power demand, according to the E3G paper.
However, it warns that leaving the European Union will “severely reduce” the UK’s ability to influence EU energy policy in line with its interests, which could make reaping the full environmental benefits of greater interconnection harder.
It could render the UK a ‘rule-taker’ from the EU in some respects, as physical interconnector links with the EU energy system could mean having to comply with internal energy market rules, such as those covering energy, environment, state aid and competition, according to the report.
Yet regardless, the paper points out, the UK and EU will need to continue cooperating on energy and climate change issues post-Brexit, as the physical links through the natural environment as well as infrastructure such as interconnectors will mean their policy choices impact one another.
The UK must therefore prioritise interconnectors in ongoing Brexit negotiations with the EU “because of the array of energy and climate benefits that they provide, as well as technical and political collaboration with other countries”, it states.
“As the Brexit negotiations move towards discussions on the future relationship, where the majority of climate and energy issues are contained, establishing a cooperation track would be the best way to maximise synergies between the two sides,” the paper adds.
The paper comes ahead of a crucial Parliamentary vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal scheduled for next week, which she is widely expected to lose.
Her draft deal includes a commitment to supporting delivery of “cost efficient, clean and secure supplies of energy”, and refers to the importance of efficiency trade of electricity via interconnectors. Leaving the EU without a deal, on the other hand, would likely exclude the UK from the key market trading arrangements in the internal energy market – a scenario which has sparked warnings the UK energy security could be undermined in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.