View from Brussels: The curious case of the Channel cable

A planned electricity cable across the Channel between the UK and France has been in development hell for the last couple of years, after planning permission was revoked and the courts got involved. Now the EU has complicated matters even further.

The Aquind interconnector between Hampshire and Normandy was announced in 2016. The 150-mile-long planned cable will have a capacity of 2 gigawatts and add vital cross-border energy potential to both the French and British power markets.

Aquind would be the latest in a growing list of UK interconnectors, which includes the 1GW BritNed Dutch link, the 3GW of French cable capacity, the 1GW Belgian Nemo link, 1.4GW provided by the North Sea Link with Norway and 1.4GW under construction that will tie the UK to Denmark.

More capacity means more customers for clean energy production, less risk of energy supply disruption and extra support for grid managers. Interconnectors require a lot of investment but can also trigger further cash injections in other parts of the energy chain.

But Aquind has turned into something of a problem child. Local authorities have lodged complaints against the project, citing alleged disruption to businesses, and planning permission has been refused.

The UK government said in January 2022 that it would not grant the necessary permits, insisting that not enough effort had been spent on finding an alternative route for the cable.

In January this year, the High Court overturned that decision, granting Aquind a reprieve, albeit a faint one, as local protestors and officials have pledged to maintain their opposition to the project.

It means that Aquind has an uncertain future, and thanks to the European Court of Justice, that future will be more difficult to navigate after the firm’s appeal against an EU funding decision was thrown out.

The EU regularly draws up a list of projects of common interest (PCI), a collection of energy projects that will contribute to the bloc’s climate and energy security goals.

Those projects are eligible for extra funding and support, and inclusion on the PCI list is seen as a major boost for private investment chances.

During the latest round of talks on drawing up the list, France refused to allow the Aquind project to be included on the newest PCI. EU countries have major sway over what is and what is not eligible for the list’s perks.

Aquind took the European Commission, the EU executive branch, to court, insisting that the decision was incorrect and that France’s objections should have been overruled. Court of Justice judges threw the case out this week, ruling that the law was followed correctly.

France’s issue

France’s reasons for refusing to allow Aquind to remain on the PCI list have not been fully elaborated. Indeed, part of Aquind’s case was based on the Commission not requesting a formal explanation from the French authorities.

ECJ judges ruled that the law does not require France to justify its actions, as a simple objection is enough. We can however piece together what the French authorities may have soured on.

The most obvious culprit is Brexit. The UK is no longer part of the internal energy market, and adding Aquind to the PCI list would be a de facto subsidy for a country that has left the EU.

Non-EU countries are eligible to be included; the current list, for example, includes a gas connector between Bulgaria and Serbia. However, in the early days of the UK’s withdrawal, it was difficult to predict how energy markets would function and be regulated amid Brexit. This was a reason cited by France’s regulator.

A reason more likely to have guided France’s hand, though, is the country’s energy ambitions for the next couple of decades, as interconnectors are a somewhat sore point for the French government.

France runs on nuclear power. That was a problem last year, as planned and unplanned maintenance shutdowns dropped output significantly and actually turned France into a net importer of energy for the first time in years.

That notwithstanding, France hopes to position itself as the beating heart of European energy security and generation. Big plans to ramp up nuclear power further and delve into the still nascent world of hydrogen production are on the cards.

What France does not want is to become an energy crossroads, with all the fees and investment into grid maintenance that comes with that. There are fears that more interconnectors will relegate France to that position.

That is why the Iberian peninsula, with its vast solar and wind power potential, has remained isolated. Political pressure is telling Paris to increase capacity across the Pyrenees, but progress is very slow.

This is where the UK comes in. Offshore and, possibly, onshore wind are going to go from strength to strength. Cheap, clean power needs a market, and if battery storage does not keep in step with renewable buildout, interconnectors are the logical destination for it.

France does not want to be the landing platform for Great British green electrons, so opposing the Aquind cable is a logical move from that point of view, even if it does undermine the EU energy mix.

But, as the ECJ ruling reveals, no member state asked the French to justify themselves when they blocked the project’s PCI status. 

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