04 Apr 2023

Cambridge - the fragile energy situation underpinning the UK’s science and research capital

Back in January I wrote about the grid capacity issues in and around West London and Slough, with specific reference to the rapidly growing data centre industry. While I focussed on West London, it isn’t the only place in the South East of England with worrying uncertainty about current and future energy availability. The Greater Cambridge area, one of the UK’s fastest growing technology hubs, is also suffering, in particular to the east and south of the city.

Cambridge is the UK’s capital for scientific research and technological innovation, and is recognised as Europe’s largest tech start-up cluster. As the excellent Cambridge Tech Podcast highlights, the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem of approximately 5,000 knowledge-intensive firms, pioneering technology companies and world-class academic and research institutions, led of course by the University of Cambridge, collectively bring in almost £16 billion of revenue annually and employ 61,000 very clever people. Bidwells’s excellent 2022 BioMedical cluster map highlights 19 research parks including the world renowned Cambridge Science Park, the Wellcome Genome Campus and the Babraham Research Campus to name but a few.

While many of these institutions at these research parks and across the city are working on life-enhancing technologies and innovations, growth in and around Cambridge is at risk of stagnating due to constraints in arguably the most life-enhancing technology of all, the supply of electricity.

The city of Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire currently uses 1.49TWh of energy per year and across the city there are regular (albeit small and quickly solved) power cuts. However power cuts of any kind aren’t great for mission critical computing projects like sequencing genomes or drug and vaccine discovery.

Exacerbating this issue is the fact Greater Cambridge region’s electricity demand is expected to triple by 2031 driven by business growth, home building, and the electrification of homes, transport and smart-city services. This exponential growth has exceeded planned levels and without urgent intervention a lack of capacity will prevent current technology footprints from expanding, new homes being built and will certainly make the good work Cambridge& are undertaking, of encouraging 81 of the world’s most enterprising businesses to choose the city as their UK and European headquarters, a lot harder. In fact, South Cambridgeshire District Council described the energy outlook in the region as “a significant barrier to growth.”

It’s not only the growth in new connections it’s the nature of the connections too. UK Power Networks, the local distribution network operator (DNO), has said, “Traditional generation applications for single technologies such as solar and wind are now often being supplemented with battery storage requiring both export and import capabilities. Installing storage alongside more traditional generation types allows developers to exploit flexibility markets and thereby earn additional revenue. The number of such applications and subsequent connections has however seen many parts of the electricity network reach technical limits driving the need for additional works.” Across their whole south-east network UKPN has forecast that,As more electric vehicles and heat pumps connect to our network, we forecast that 51 of our high voltage (HV) substations will require additional capacity” and “we forecast that almost 1,000 of our low voltage (LV) substations will require additional capacity.”

And, let’s throw another spanner into the works, the city’s commendable push to become carbon Net Zero by 2030, as outlined by Cambridge City Council’s Climate Change Strategy 2021-2026, will bring a demand to electrify transport, provide hundreds of vehicle charging points and power smart ‘Internet-of-Things’ technologies. Where will all the electricity, and green, sustainable electrons come from?

Clearly, this is not a situation that is going to get any better in the region without someone stepping in and driving for a resolution. That someone is actually an organisation, the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP). The GCP brings together councils, businesses, academia, and local communities to support and deliver the creation of “44,000 new jobs, 33,500 new homes and 420 additional apprenticeships in the Greater Cambridge region”. The GCP is also the delivery body for the £500 million City Deal.

Seeing the capacity issues developing, and forecasting the future stagnation of the region if unaddressed, the GCP stepped in to work with UKPN to build the requirements into their latest business plan and to support the case for inclusion with Ofgem. There is a drastic need for additional Extra High Voltage (EHV) infrastructure in the region and the GCP stated that two specific projects need to be delivered as soon as possible; a new 132/33kV Bulk Supply Point substation at Cambridge East Grid and a new 33/11kV Primary Substation at Trumpington. The GCP have said, “We are pleased that UKPN have engaged with GCP and included these two schemes in their business plan, and strongly support their inclusion within UKPN’s delivery programme.” The GCP goes on to say,This investment will help to remove that barrier to sustainable growth by providing the energy required for new homes and jobs identified in the Local Plan.” The works on these two substations alone should unlock 69MVA of new grid capacity, an increase of 29% from 240MVA today.

There has been some discomfort from the local councillors that the GCP is getting involved in something that isn’t their responsibility and also the suggestion that the GCP might fund some of the work from the City Deal. Equally though, others have pointed out that without the GCP intervention then there’s a very real risk of significant delays to homes, jobs and investment in the region.

As ever with electricity network improvements, there is no short term fix. Construction work on these upgrades won’t start until some point between 2023 and 2025 and until this is fully resolved developers and businesses who have large-scale and long term energy demands may well have their eyes focussed on alternative locations where power is more reliable and scalable.

Wayne Mitchell

Wayne Mitchell has 25 years experience in the energy business across coal, gas and renewable electricity, spending the last 14 years with E.ON and npower, and is now working independently. Most recently Wayne was the Director of Corporate & Strategic, and one of the senior leadership team of the industrial and commercial division of E.ON UK, and was responsible for all major clients across electricity, gas, export, and metering.


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