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Brexit: will the lights go out? A review of the electricity interconnectors with the EU

4 June 2018

With less than a year to go to ‘Brexit day’, Wednesday 29 March, many scaremongering tabloids have speculated that Brexit will bring blackouts as a result of the UK’s electricity interconnectors with the EU. The UK has played a major role in the internal electricity market (IEM) which allows energy to flow between EU member states seamlessly through interconnectors without tariffs. Currently, there are just four operational interconnectors between the UK and the EU: one with France, another with the Netherlands and two with the island of Ireland, with 12 more interconnectors that are either planned or in the process of being constructed. They currently have the capacity of 4GW but this is expected to increase to approximately 12GW by the early 2020’s once the further interconnectors are established.

These interconnectors were constructed in order to provide a cost-effective connection between national electricity grids that can provide a low carbon electricity system. As the UK is in the process of leaving the EU, and thus the IEM, the fear is that electricity will be traded from the EU less efficiently, increasing operator costs and ultimately raising the costs to consumers. The government has suggested that they intend on maintaining cross-border energy trade with the EU to avoid any market distortions. However this is not guaranteed. The question remains how reliant are we on imported electricity from the EU? In the worst case scenario, if tariff barriers were introduced and the UK government decided as a result that it was too expensive to import electricity from the EU would the lights go out like the tabloids suggest?

Put simply, no.

According to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, net imports accounted for 4.5% of UK electricity supplied in 2017 which is 0.7 less than 2016. From this it can be inferred that the UK isn’t solely dependent on EU supply of electricity, however this doesn’t necessarily mean that having the EU as a supply safety net and a customer of energy is not highly important to the UK’s energy policy. The rest of the UK’s electricity derives from nationally produced low carbon generation (nuclear and renewable sources) gas and coal. The future outlook for domestically produced electricity looks positive as renewable energy is expected to become cheaper and more widespread.

It is extremely unlikely that the EU will sever electricity flow to the UK. It would not be in the interest to those EU member countries who (or will) directly benefit from the interconnectors to hinder the flow of electricity back and forth across the interconnectors. The worst case scenario will be that we will have to pay import taxes on the energy supplied from the EU, passing the cost onto the consumers but there has been no indication that this will be the case. Brexit, without doubt, brings uncertainty. However, in the years after Brexit the future interconnectors will be constructed and the UK and the EU will continue to pass electricity back and forth. It will be interesting to see if the construction industry will be looking to build in Brexit protections into their agreements for the interconnectors. Citizens of the UK can sleep well knowing that we have strong domestic electricity generation capabilities both now and in the future, and the EU will not sever the power lines.

Written by Selina Hinchliffe and Andrew Douglas

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