The early bird connects to the grid

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pixabay_power_poles-503935_1920The key to a successful grid connection is to start early. It will still be an expensive, lengthy process, but independent connections providers say they can shave up to a third off the costs. Brendan Coyne reports

“Energy is becoming a key factor in where a business chooses to locate itself,” says Robert James, infrastructure and energy project manager at Savills. But getting a grid connection can be a minefield, in some cases, literally.

For larger sites, the key is to apply early, says James.

“The grid network is at capacity in much of the country, so apply and reserve capacity early. Even if a project doesn’t work out there will be plenty of people willing to take the capacity off your hands, potentially at a higher price.”

James says not all distribution network operators (DNOs) are equal when it comes to pace and price of connections. He says savings of around a third can be made by actively managing the connections process and shopping around.

“Actively managing works is the most important element,” says James. “The DNOs won’t push it along for you.”

Contest and save

Connections costs can be broken down into two parts: The work that must be done by the local grid operator, called ‘non-contestable’ works; and the work that can be undertaken by a third party, called ‘contestable’ works’

James says customers are not always aware they may use an independent connections provider (ICP) for the contestable part. There are over 200 ICPs vying for the work.

“It can be much cheaper [to use an independent provider],” says James. He cites a recent client in Mossmorran, Fife, as an example of the savings achieved by taking an active project management role.

“On a 33kV line, the offer from the DNO was £2.2 million. But we reapplied and instead undergrounded an 11kV line to avoid planning headaches. We got an ICP to do some of the work and the new cost came in at £1.5 million. So we saved the client £700,000, or 32%,” says James. “It would be nice to get that on all projects but it is achievable.”

Minefield

Phil Sykes, of Morrison Utility Connections, agrees the process can be a minefield. Morrison has come across unexploded ordinance in the course of building connections, he says.

Sykes says it can take up to 18 months for connections to be completed – and agrees businesses should start connections planning as soon as possible.

“New data centres, hospitals, these are long-term projects. Making sure you have the utilities in place is the most critical part,” says Sykes.

“Transformers are long lead-time items, they will take three to six months. Then you have all the site surveys, crossing road legal applications, which are Section 50s, and they take time to come back. So these are long-term projects and you need to get the utilities in first. Clients don’t always understand the process that has to be undertaken long before you start digging and laying anything.”

Shave and save

Sykes agrees that ICPs can shave up to a third off connections costs and “can very often deliver more quickly than DNOs”.

While energy regulator Ofgem has published customer research that suggests Western Power Distribution is one of the better DNOs in terms of facilitating competition in connections provision, Sykes is reluctant to name less obliging network operators.

“A lot of it depends on your relationship with the DNO, and it also comes down to how many people are trying to connect to their network at the same time,” says Sykes. “

“But if you start early, shop around and bring partners into the project early on you stand a better chance of getting what you want for the best price.”

Case study: Connecting a central London data centre

Volta’s central London data centre is has a twin ring 33kV connection to UK Power Networks’ recently upgraded grid. Head of facilities John Speers (pictured) says the build was completed before he joined the company – but its legacy is highly resilient headroom.

Volta's John Speers
Volta’s John Speers

“UKPN put in a brand new 33kV network due to the volume of construction planned in the city of London. That meant anyone connecting to it had to buy their own transformers,” says Speers. “So we have two 33kV feeds coming into our own switches feeding our own transformers.”

He says the system enables Volta to parallel its on-site generators to the grid without worrying about system faults due to the network’s higher fault tolerance.

As well as “very high” availability, says Speers, “our feed has something like 45MVA of availability, of which we are taking up 9.6MVA. That can be uprated to 60MVA should the need occur”.

That means plenty of room for growth, which Volta anticipates.

“It is a good thing to have. Especially when, with all the new data centres they are trying to bring online, they are struggling for capacity in Docklands at the moment.”

Originally posted in the November/December print issue of Mission Critical Power.

Related articles:

Volta guarantees 100% uptime or free data centre for a year

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