British energy exports hit record as power crisis grips the Continent

Power cables - STEPHANE MAHE/REUTERS
Power cables - STEPHANE MAHE/REUTERS

Britain exported a record amount of electricity to the Continent during spring as Russia’s war on Ukraine and outages on France’s nuclear fleet sparked a power crisis across the European Union.

Eight percent of the electricity generated in Britain in the three months to June 2022, or more than five terawatt-hours, was sent to other European countries through undersea power cables.

The trade was worth about £1.5bn to Britain, according to Imperial College London in a report commissioned by power generator Drax, and helped counter the effect of cuts to Russsian gas supplies. 

However, the trend also highlights the growing competition for power supplies which could cause problems for Britain as winter hits.

Iain Staffell, of Imperial College London, said: “Britain has played an important role in helping to keep the lights on across Europe amid the deepening energy crisis which is being weaponized by Russia against our nearest neighbours.

“With Europe now facing long-term security of supply problems, there could be an economic argument for Britain to step up investment in power production in the years ahead to build an even bigger trade surplus, and protect our nation from damaging energy shortages.”

France is typically an exporter of power to Britain due its large fleet of nuclear power plants.  However, up to half have been offline because of maintenance or corrosion problems.

Meanwhile, cuts to gas supplies from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine put further strains on electricity supplies, as much of electricity is generated from gas.

Britain has effectively acted as an energy “bridge” to Europe by using its three terminals to import gas in liquid form from around the world, importing gas and exporting both gas and electricity to Europe.

There are eight undersea cables connecting the UK’s power grid to other markets, including France, Ireland, Norway and Belgium.  The cables can help balance out intermittent supplies from wind and solar, importing at times of scarcity and exporting when wind speeds are high.

As winter approaches with stress on the energy system, however, there are concerns about increased competition for supplies between France and Britain, with both looking to each other for supplies.

An early winter forecast from National Grid assumes Britain will be able to get power over undersea cables when needed, but France’s power grid has also highlighted the potential importance of imports this winter.