As the UK government works to exit the European Union, the nation’s electric utilities are working to get closer.
Power already flows between the UK, France, Ireland and Northern Ireland through four interconnector cables, and work is under way to more than quadruple the capacity of those links. The cables will establish a stronger physical tie with the continent regardless of what politicians decide on Brexit.
The investments mark a contrast with Prime Minister Theresa May’s effort to make the UK more independent of its continental neighbors. Building more power cables between nations will bind Britain’s electricity market closer to those of continental Europe.
That will benefit both Britain and Europe, giving grid managers everywhere additional flexibility to respond to shocks and the system and to buy the cheapest power.
The Brexit process may undermine the economic and logistical case for using interconnectors. To maintain flows after April 1, the UK must agree to remain part of the EU internal energy market. That must be written into Britain’s agreement with the EU to exit the union, and that hasn’t happened so far. What happens to electricity if there’s a no-deal hard Brexit would add so much friction to the system that utilities think it’s unthinkable.
For two decades, energy interconnectors have become more common throughout Europe as the union sought to build a single market in energy. The UK has been a major proponent in that process — and a big beneficiary.
For an island nation like Britain, links are a helpful source of cheap electricity and flexibility for grid managers, who would otherwise have to rely on utilities building costly generation plants. They give another source of electricity at peak times, like the cold winter days when there’s high demand for heating.
Whether the UK can still rely its neighbours for energy at times of stress depends on the the UK’s energy relationship with the EU after Brexit.
Those matters haven’t had much discussion yet. Policy makers have focussed on other issues like the nature of the border with Ireland. Some analysts are warning greater dependence on the EU leaves Britain’s grid vulnerable.