PODCAST: 5 energy infrastructure challenges & opportunities for the South West

When it comes to energy, the South West boasts a number of distinctive features, setting it apart from many other regions of the UK. These present both challenges and opportunities for the future. As the demand for clean and sustainable energy continues to grow, the region faces the task of updating and diversifying its energy infrastructure, a topic discussed in Episode 5 of Beyond Brunel.

Unique geography

In the podcast, industry guests tackle key questions around the development of sustainable energy infrastructure, including the obstacles and what is required in order to transition to net zero by 2050. Peter Kydd, Strategic Advisor to WSP and Past Chair of SWIP, explained some of the advantages the region could leverage:

“We have a huge amount of resource in the South West. We have lots of wind, tidal energy, waves off the coast of Cornwall and lots of sun. We have all of the resources here, but it’s really about our ability to be able to make use of them in time to help get the UK to net zero by 2050.”

Upgrading the grid

Becky Fowell, Energy Market Analyst at Regen, warned that the energy system is not ready to meet demands either from a transmission or distribution point of view:

“For transmission greater than 400kV, we have very few grid supply points, all of which will probably need to be upgraded in order to take extra capacity. In terms of the distribution network it is a lot more complicated in terms of voltage, spreading capacity around and allowing consumers to take the power off it. A lot of the grid in the whole of the nation will need to be upgraded, and in particular, the South West.”

Floating offshore wind

One of the biggest opportunities for sustainable energy in the South West is the harnessing of offshore renewable energy, and in Episode 3 of Beyond Brunel, we heard about the floating offshore wind farm being developed in the Celtic Sea. While this project and other renewable sources offer solutions to reaching net zero by 2050, connecting wind farms to the main grid presents a challenge, as Becky explained:

“Looking at the floating offshore wind that is planned in the Celtic Sea, the Crown Estate have announced 4 gigawatts to come out by 2030. At this moment in time, there is nowhere for this power to come into the South West without an upgrade.”

Rural solutions

One of the most appealing features of the South West is its diverse landscape, and especially its countryside. However, the rural nature of large parts of the region present a challenge for modernising energy networks, especially where a high proportion of households still use oil or other non-sustainable energy sources for heating. Extending the network and providing low carbon energy to remote areas of the region will be costly and logistically complex. Peter Kydd stressed that novel solutions and new thinking would be required to overcome the many challenges for rural communities:

“It’s going to mean more cables, as many electricity cables as we have at the moment. What happens with heating of these cables, if you are putting in lower voltages but higher currents? There are some significant challenges. You’ve got all the EV network as well, which is going to exacerbate the issue. Could we combine the EV infrastructure with the domestic charging infrastructure? That could be a clever solution and I think we will need clever solutions. Could community heating solve some of this in the South West? We have a lot of mines in the Cornish area, could we use those mines as sources for district heating? So, there are solutions, they’re just not the conventional solutions that everyone’s been used to.”

Upskilling and training

The South West tourism industry is booming and draws visitors to the area each year, but this adds further strain to the energy network. With the exception of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, currently under construction in Somerset, the region’s generation facilities are “relatively small scale”. Also, as the industry evolves, embraces new technologies and seeks out those non-conventional solutions, there is a growing demand for skilled professionals. The resources may already exist but without the skills, energy infrastructure development in the South West will stall. Linda Irwin, Project Manager at the Southwest Net Zero Hub and SWIP’s Energy Sector advisor, talked about her experience in the industry:

“There are a lot of really skilled people, really knowledgeable people, some amazing innovators. The skills are definitely there but whether there are enough people and whether it can be done quickly enough, that is where the question lies.”

One solution is to encourage more young people and those from diverse backgrounds to consider a career in engineering. This means changing any stereotypes around the profession, communicating how exciting it can be, and offering opportunities to a wider group of people, which includes providing different ways to enter the field such as apprenticeships, training on the job and upskilling.

Energy is the biggest part of the decarbonisation puzzle, and it is also be the hardest part to solve. However, the region benefits from its strategic location, offering many opportunities for renewable energy generation. Overcoming the challenges and maximising the advantages of the South West’s unique energy situation will undoubtedly contribute to a resilient and sustainable future for the region.