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Does Government Really Expect 24% of UK Electricity to be Imported in 2025?

March 18, 2017

By Paul Homewood




From the GWPF:


New UK government projections of capacity and supply suggest that interconnection and electricity imports must grow by over 300% by 2025 if demand is to be met. While imports are not in themselves to be feared, it is worrying that government appears to be using assumptions about interconnection as a free parameter to paper over deficiencies in what is now in effect a centrally planned electricity system.

The GB system currently has about 5.7 GW of interconnectors, and in 2016 net imports of electricity over these lines amounted to about 18 TWh, mostly from France, and the Netherlands, though with traces from Eire and Northern Ireland. This is approximately 6.5% of demand on the GB system.

Data published last week by the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) as part of the latest iteration of its Updated Energy Emissions Projections shows that interconnection must rise to 20 GW as soon as 2024, and net imports must rise to 77 TWh in the following year, 24% of requirements, if expected demand for electricity is to be met.

BEIS’s own chart (5.1 in the UEEP itself) is not particularly helpful in appreciating the overall picture, so I here redraw that data in two figures, the first showing electrical energy generation in terawatt hours by fuel type from 2016 to 2035, and the second re-expressing that data in percentage terms.


Figure 1. UK Electricity Generation (TWh) from 2016 to 2035. Source: Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Updated Energy and Emissions Projections 2016 (March 2017). See Web Figures.

The salient facts are:

  1. The quantity of electrical generated from gas-fired generators is expected to fall sharply in 2017, and to decline, though with some short term increases, thereafter.
  2. Nuclear output is expected to expand significantly after 2025.
  3. Renewable output roughly doubles over the period.
  4. Imports grow very sharply in the middle of the next decade, and then decline in volume towards the end of the period.

The percentages bring this into sharper focus:


Figure 2: UK Electricity Generation (%) from 2016 to 2035. Source: Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Updated Energy and Emissions Projections 2016 (March 2017). See Web Figures.

As can be seen in 2025 the UK is nearly 25% reliant on imported electricity in spite of renewables contributing upwards of 35% of demand in that year.

The evolution of generating capacity behind this phenomenon can also be charted from BEIS’ projections:


Figure 3. UK Electricity Capacity 2016 to 2035 (GW). Source: Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Updated Energy and Emissions Projections 2016 (March 2017). See Annex L: Total Electricity Generating Capacity.

The salient features of this chart are:

  1. Total capacity increases by about 40% in the period.
  2. Natural gas capacity does not grow significantly, indeed it falls from a peak in 2018 of 39 GW to 31 GW in 2035.
  3. Nuclear capacity declines to a low of 5 GW in 2024 and then climbs to 17 GW in 2035.
  4. Renewables grow steadily from 37 GW in 2016 to 63 GW in 2035. This is by no means implausible; the government’s own Renewable Energy Planning Database, records 55.2 GW of consented renewable capacity.
  5. Interconnection rises rapidly from about 6 GW in 2016 to 20 GW in 2024.

The rapid, major increase in import capacity and in electricity imports is far and away the most important single feature of these charts, and not, it must be emphasised, because imports are to be feared in themselves, but because of what this tells us about the way that BEIS has constructed the estimates. In many circumstances imports are to be welcomed, as economic, but the BEIS projections have little or nothing to do with comparative advantage. They are not grounded in economic analyses suggesting that within a few years it will be the best use of resources for UK consumers to buy over 20% of their electricity from overseas suppliers. On the contrary, it seems clear that what BEIS has done is use imports simply as a free parameter. Where their models of new generation and output fail to meet projected demand they have assumed that imports will make up the balance. That is why the net imports fade away both in absolute quantity and in proportion after the mid-2020s, when new nuclear generation starts to be built

In one sense we can take comfort from the fact that these are not realistic scenarios; importing in distressed circumstances is clearly not an attractive prospect, and BEIS itself remarks that “The results do not indicate a preferred alternative and should be treated as illustrative” (UEEP, p. 31). But illustrative of what? Departmental despair? It is, at the very least, disconcerting to learn that in spite of having assumed all but complete responsibility for the supply of electricity the UK government has in 2017 little or no idea how it is going to meet demand in the early and mid 2020s other than ad hoc assumptions with regard to imports of electricity over interconnectors the vast majority of which are not yet built and from markets that may not be able, let alone willing to supply the UK’s needs.


I have raised this issue about interconnectors before.

As I have often said, they make a good deal of sense, in terms of balancing surpluses and deficits in generation, as long as the economics stand up.

But the worrying thing, as John Constable now highlights, is that the UK’s energy strategy now increasingly appears to depend on imports of electricity.

As he comments, this should not be an objection in principle, as the UK relies on imports of all sorts of things.

Nevertheless, energy is particularly essential from a strategic point of view. Can we depend on the reliability of electricity imports, especially when power margins are tight across Europe? At best, we may secure supplies at a great cost.

As with all other vital supplies, establishing a wide variety of sources should be the number one priority.

Imports of electricity from other countries may have its attractions, but should never be regarded as a substitute  for a proper energy policy.

And, as John points out, the use of interconnectors does not even appear the result of any logical strategy. Instead it appears to be the default option, when everything else has failed.

  1. March 18, 2017 11:20 pm

    Having been to a presentation / lecture by Professor John Loughhead then Chief Scientist to DECC who laid out the planning being talked about here by GWPF and made it quite clear that the sums didn’t add up.

    The coward’s way out he hinted was to import (or at least budget to do it) and leave the mess to your successors…. thereby swerving any actual engineering decisions.

    As I’ve commented elsewhere – I am convinced that we still have a core of eco-activists and an over representation of “renewables” interests driving energy policy and skewing it quite appealingly while the actual energy utility companies have been neutered by being portrayed as “eevil fossil fuels” and their timorous managers have to play out humiliating little games.

  2. It doesn't add up... permalink
    March 19, 2017 12:47 am

    I also note that for all the much vaunted talk about storage the projection only includes capacity of 7GW, of which some 3GW is supposedly from batteries (and presumably they also assume that Coire Glas will be built to provide some slightly more real storage). It appears that the role of batteries is very short term grid stabilisation measured in minutes per frequency event of the sort discussed here:

    It is not going to handle the variable output from renewables. In fact, average storage generation capacity utilisation falls from ~15% with our present pumped hydro to just 8.5% including the batteries, implying just 3.5% utilisation of the batteries themselves – or less if we allow for Coire Glas.

    Other points that occur:

    We continue to fail to account for the fact that the BritNed connector is fed by the coal fired Maasvlakte power stations at the entrance to Rotterdam Harbour, generating copious CO2 emissions.

    The interconnector capacity required to meet peak demands in a high renewables scenario with inadequate alternative dispatchable power is almost certainly underestimated at 20GW: the utilisations would tend to be lower than the present regime, with higher peak requirements, whereas they are assuming that utilisations will increase. The effect will be similar to that already “enjoyed” by our existing fossil fuel generators. Of course, that will make the economics extremely dubious.

    Interconnectors are a two edged sword: do we really want to find ourselves trying to supply 20GW to the Continent in a bidding war for who gets the blackout?

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      March 19, 2017 10:14 am

      Not sure why, but all my comments seem to be going to moderation recently…

  3. March 19, 2017 2:31 am

    There used to be an absolute priority of national security of supply. This was not just adequate generation and margin, but strategic national interests protected by planned generation. I don’t remember any legislation changing these priorities.
    I suggest that this is a legal issue, with the government liable to prosecution.

    • March 19, 2017 6:40 am

      The Climate Change Act 2008 made decarbonising the electricity supply the number one priority and pushed security of supply and affordability down the priority list. Total insanity.

  4. Ben Vorlich permalink
    March 19, 2017 9:57 am

    How will being outside the EU and/or EFTA affect import and export tariffs on energy?

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      March 19, 2017 11:21 pm

      Oil, gas, coal, woodchips and power are I believe all tariff free under the Common External Tariff. However, I wouldn’t be wanting to rely on interconnectors for power when there are likely to be shortages on the Continent that could turn into demand rather than supply, and with a not necessarily equitable treatment from the EU’s grid operators. For gas we are reasonably protected through our LNG terminals effectively being used for imports to the Continent via the pipelines from Bacton to Zeebrugge and Balgzand, and some Norwegian supply is sometimes also routed that way. Fracking our own would be better still.

  5. Robert Jones permalink
    March 19, 2017 10:00 am

    We must surely be approaching the point where the Climate Change Act (2008) can at least be sharply ‘cross-examined’, if not summarily repealed. Its priorities are clearly wrong and its effects are counter-productive towards the principal strategic purpose of safe-guarding the UK’s energy supply.

    Donald Trump has taken an axe to the EPA, reduced its budget by 31% and installed a ‘Climate Change Realist’ as its Director and it’s time that we made common cause. Where is the GWPF’s investigation of the NOAA’s retrospective temperature adjustments? Where is the Government’s strong support for an enhanced UK fracking effort? Where are the Small Nuclear Reactors?

    A robust process for ‘de-greening’ the UK’s energy strategy will not only not impede Brexit but will also make the post-Brexit success story more durable.

    • mikewaite permalink
      March 19, 2017 4:02 pm

      The only way to get the MPs to actually sit and listen to any debate about the CCA would be if they were forced to, by a petition that amassed the minimum number necessary to bring the matter to the attention of those Honourable Ladies and Gentlemen.
      Given that any such petition would be instantly attacked by the BBC, virtually all the media and every luvvy in the land, the probability of getting more than a few individuals brave enough to put their names and email addresses on a list that would be perused by the Met’s hate crime unit must be very low.
      In England , now.

  6. March 19, 2017 10:00 am

    oh … for a comment edit facility …..

  7. March 19, 2017 10:19 am

    The govt has made only a halfhearted commitment to the concept of baseload power, and nuclear is now so much more difficult to do than it was 50 years ago, the laws of physics must have changed, or maybe we now only have media studies and golf course management graduates. Without baseload, the baying mob of Green Zealots/Troughers will drive all but peakers out of business, which leaves only interconnectors.

    The govt must fully commit to baseload, and make it zealot-proof, otherwise everyone will eventually need to import from each other.

    • andy mckendrick permalink
      March 20, 2017 2:05 pm

      Please don`t forget gender studies ,ac- and dc mean something completely different to them.

  8. Bloke down the pub permalink
    March 19, 2017 10:40 am

    ‘While imports are not in themselves to be feared,….’

    Considering our balance of trade deficit, I would not be so blase about importing something, that we could easily be producing more cheaply at home.

  9. Malcolm Swinbanks permalink
    March 19, 2017 12:09 pm

    It is often assumed that adding large amounts of battery storage to the system will solve the problems, ensuring energy independence and making utilisation of wind turbines more efficient. But sensibly, there can never be enough storage to ensure smoothed all year-round energy availability. So on occasions there will still be a need for full backup generation. But since this backup will be called upon less frequently, it will become economically less efficient and require greater subsidy. We would then have three expensive, subsidised sources of energy – renewables, backup generation, and battery storage. Meanwhile, by observing data on gridwatch, it can be seen that our nuclear power stations run steadily and consistently day in, day out, at a near constant 8 GW.

    • March 19, 2017 1:17 pm

      “Meanwhile, by observing data on gridwatch, it can be seen that our nuclear power stations run steadily and consistently day in, day out, at a near constant 8 GW”

      Yes, but not for much longer, and a vast green-industrial complex, supported by hordes of brain-dead zombies, is cheering on their demise.

  10. Jack Broughton permalink
    March 19, 2017 5:07 pm

    Several interesting points arising here:
    As Phillip Bratby says, we have forgotten where our priorities should lie.

    I also agree with “Bloke…” that imports must not be relied on as they will be market dependent and another drain on the balance of payments.

    It seems that the only sensible answer is for the UK to go back to a nationalised electricity industry and re-form the CEGB: market and subsidy forces have led us to the edge of the cliff. Provided the carbon priests are removed there is still a chance, but we need to prevent them from destroying any more of the, albeit old, coal fired power stations that could make massive savings for the country.

  11. Sheri permalink
    March 19, 2017 8:14 pm

    Isn’t this what happened when countries depended on imported oil and the supply was damped down?

  12. March 22, 2017 1:30 pm

    Some lessons to be learned about dependence on energy imports from the Russian behavior. Now I am sure that Brexit will not impact the French behavior as they always have our backs.!

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