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Britain Importing More Electricity Than Ever

Forget Brexit. By one important metric, Britain is more closely intertwined with Europe than ever before.

In the afternoon of 20 August, Great Britain was importing more electricity from Europe than ever before—a sign of things to come, according to energy market analysts EnAppSys.

Net interconnector imports hit an instantaneous high of 5,873MW at 12:20 pm on that date, EnAppSys found. At that time, the Irish grid, which usually draws on electricity from Britain, was instead exporting to the British market. 

Meanwhile, the North Sea Link (NSL), a new subsea cable running to Norway, was running in a test ahead of its commercial launch on 1 October. When it goes live, the NSL will deliver cheap, renewable power from Norway nearly all the time—and shatter electricity import records again.

We can “expect records to be broken again [in October] or at least when full load tests take place in September,” Phil Hewitt, director of EnAppSys, said.

Another interconnector is also preparing to come online. The Eleclink line, running to France through the Channel Tunnel, was scheduled to switch on in early 2022. However, its installation proceeded faster than anticipated after Covid restrictions reduced the number of trains passing through the tunnels. Tests of the interconnector will begin at the end of September.

With these new cables live, Britain will have 8.4GW of installed interconnectors linking it to European energy markets by the end of the year. These connections will allow it to better balance an electricity system increasingly reliant on renewables.

Integration key to running a grid on renewables. Linked up to Europe, Britain can sell wind power abroad when storms push supply above demand and then purchase electricity from elsewhere on the continent when the skies are still. The government has aimed to import 20% of Britain’s electricity from Europe by 2025, part of its drive to decarbonise the power grid. 

With 8.4GW of interconnector capacity live, interconnectors will be able to deliver up to a quarter of Britain’s electricity at any time.

Furthermore, the construction of two new cables to Germany and Denmark, to be completed in 2023-24, will add an additional 2.8GW to that capacity.

Currently, Britain is the second biggest net importer of electricity, drawing 12.3TWh from Europe in the first half of 2021. This is because these imports are cheaper than the power generated in Britain, which is subject to the Carbon Price Support, a domestic top-up tax levied in addition to the UK’s carbon price.

But as the UK’s offshore wind sector—already the largest in the world—expands and produces more power, Britain will begin to export more electricity to Europe than it brings in.

“In the long run, Britain will stop being a net importer of electricity as more offshore wind is built around its shores. During periods when GB has more low-carbon generation than it needs, it may decide to dump excess power into Europe. This could become an important factor in reversing the interconnectors and changing GB into a net exporter of power, perhaps as soon as 2025,” Hewitt forecast.

Lauren Smith
Lauren Smith

Lauren Smith has worked as a journalist and copywriter for most of the last decade, covering technology, energy, and consumer rights, in the US and UK.

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