The UK energy secretary could be handed powers to fast-track connecting electricity-hungry projects, such as Jaguar Land Rover’s owner Tata’s planned electric battery factory, to the grid, under plans being discussed between government and regulators.
Amid concerns about delays of up to 15 years in hooking up large schemes, the Guardian understands the move would allow Claire Coutinho to request that energy network companies accelerate upgrades to substations and power lines to connect specific new developments.
It is understood that the government and the regulator Ofgem have told National Grid’s electricity systems operator that they are “minded” to adopt its proposals to change the model for connections, which now moves at a pace set by each network operator.
A source said: “Foreign investors need assurances that, if these things are going to be built, then they can be hooked up quickly. There are physical assets, like substations, which transmission companies will need to build or upgrade.”
The government is belatedly attempting to tackle a logjam that has resulted in some developments facing a 10- to 15-year wait for a connection to the grid. Ofgem announced on Monday plans to remove “zombie” projects from the queue to connect up to speed up those ready to produce renewable power for the grid.
Although no equivalent queue exists for those looking to take power from the grid, ministers and officials are concerned that large projects could struggle to secure final investment and proceed without guarantees over their connection to the electricity supply.
Sources said changes to the rules had been proposed with several big projects in mind: Tata’s new £4bn electric battery factory, expected to be built in Somerset; and the switch to electric arc furnaces at Britain’s biggest steelworks at Port Talbot in south Wales, also owned by the Indian group.
The £1.25bn plan from British Steel, which is owned by China’s Jingye, to replace two blast furnaces at Scunthorpe steelworks, with an electric arc furnace at the north Lincolnshire plant and another at a site in Teesside, North Yorkshire, has also formed part of the proposals. Negotiations over the closure of blast furnaces at Port Talbot and Scunthorpe are expected to lead to thousands of job losses.
All three projects are likely to involve significant investment from the UK government, alongside the companies’ overseas owners.
Britain has 10 distribution network operators, including National Grid and Northern Powergrid, which operate monopolies in their regions and handle transmission of power from the grid to end users.
Sources said the move could be announced as soon as this month, and may be included within the “connections action plan”, a broader overhaul of Britain’s network connections.
The plan, which is expected to be announced alongside the chancellor’s autumn statement next week, will rebalance the planning system to help speed up the connection of new solar and windfarms to the grid.
On Wednesday, Ofgem said it planned to create a network of 13 “regional energy strategic planners” to work with organisations, including local government and gas and electricity networks, to analyse what infrastructure was needed in different parts of the country and how to attract investment for projects.
Their efforts will be coordinated by the Future Systems Operator, the new authority that will be created when the ESO is nationalised.
A Department for Energy Security and Net Zero spokesperson said: “We want to go further and faster on grid connections – bringing even more capacity online, reducing timescales, and ensuring clean, affordable and secure energy sources reach more homes.
“Alongside Ofgem we will be publishing a joint action plan shortly, setting out how we will accelerate connections.”