National Grid warns UK energy system cannot sustain tech growth

The CEO of the National Grid has warned the UK’s current energy system cannot sustain data centre, AI and quantum computing growth.

John Pettigrew, group CEO of the National Grid, was speaking at the annual Aurora Forum in Oxford yesterday. He argued for a new approach to build additional transmission networks to add capacity to the grid.

Pettigrew warned the UK’s energy system is “a network that’s constrained”, with “demand on the grid growing dramatically, and forecast to double by 2050”.

One immediate concern is demand from commercial data centres which, Pettigrew said, “will increase six-fold, just in the next ten years”.

He said that the onset of technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing “will mean larger scale, energy-intensive computing infrastructure”. The electrification of heat, transport and industry will also add pressure.

Pettigrew said “the answers can be found in our history books”, and reflected on the 1950s, when “electricity was enabling a whole new world of opportunity” but “demand for electricity had risen ninefold, and major investment and expansion was needed”.

In the 1950s, the UK’s supergrid was established with an “incremental, tactical and reactive” approach. Today’s pressure on the UK’s electricity system, Pettigrew said, is “a moment in time that requires innovative thinking and bold actions to create a transmission network for tomorrow’s future”.

He argued the incremental approach that has sustained the UK’s energy demands will not be able to keep up with future demand. Instead, Pettigrew said, the UK might need “alternative long-term approaches to build a grid that is fit not just for the next 20 years, but for the next 60”.

The National Gird, Pettigrew explained, sees the “potential” in one approach that would construct “an ultra-high voltage onshore transmission network of up to 800 thousand volts”.

That additional network, Pettigrew said, “would be superimposed on the existing supergrid,” to “enable bulk power transfers around the country, with strategically located ultra-high capacity substations, supporting the connection of big energy sources to big demand centres via the new network”.

This “strategic and proactive approach” might be a better option for the UK’s energy needs than “today’s incremental, tactical and reactive one”.