Power struggle

In the drive to reduce carbon emissions in Scotland, attention has focused on increasing energy from renewable power sources. This has encountered infrastructure and legislative challenges, in contrast with recent support for the telecoms sector.

19 December 2023

Electricity transmission network

The drive to reduce carbon emissions in Scotland has centred on increasing the proportion of energy derived from sources of renewable power. However, the infrastructure to deliver that renewable power needs to be fit for purpose, specifically, for Scotland’s electricity transmission and distribution networks.

Not only is this development encountering challenges, but there’s been a marked contrast with recent legislative support for another key part of the economy the telecoms sector.

Transmission network

Scotland’s transmission network is the most visible of the two and consists of mostly overhead electricity lines, together with some underground lines, which carry electricity at voltages of 132 kilovolts and above.

Overhead lines span the countryside, supported by steel lattice towers, carrying power from generating stations to local substations. The transmission network feeds the distribution network.

Distribution network

The distribution network also comprises underground and overhead lines but, because the voltages are lower (less than 132 kilovolts), the physical support network is less visible and is largely made from wooden poles.

Network development

Much of Scotland’s transmission and distribution networks date from the 1950s and 1960s when renewable energy was practically unknown, save for hydro schemes. There were certainly no commercial windfarms.

The rapid growth of onshore wind in the 1990s and early 2000s has highlighted the need for the country’s grid to keep up with modern demands. The current grid lacks the required coverage in parts of the country and the age of the infrastructure is not optimal for the purposes of transmitting the large amount of renewable power now being generated. With the growth of renewable energy only set to increase, the need for the network to receive significant ongoing investment is coming sharply into focus.

Even at a local distribution level, the rapid growth in electric vehicles (EV) since around 2015 has given rise to challenges in the rapid deployment of EV charging points. These too require a reliable grid connection.

Legal tools

Building a new transmission line can be a slow and costly undertaking. Many members of the public are supportive of network upgrades in principle but some are reluctant to have towers and lines near to, or on, their land. For new towers and lines to be installed, planning permission or some other form of statutory consent is needed and the consenting stage can be lengthy.

Legal land rights are also required, a process which, in the absence of agreement with the landowner, requires the relevant electricity undertaker to resort to powers of compulsory purchase. Those powers are still largely found in legislation which was enacted in the mid-1840s to enable large stretches of land to be acquired for the purposes of developing railways across Britain. A lot of things have changed since the middle of the 19th century, and yet the laws of compulsory purchase have, to a significant extent, remained in the early Victorian era. 

Scotland’s law reform body reviewed the law of compulsory purchase in 2014 and found it to be unfit for purpose. Unfortunately, nine years on, nothing has changed as the legal modernisation project went no further than a discussion paper. The position is not helped by Scotland’s electricity laws being mainly found in the privatisation statute from 1989, enacted before renewable energy began its rapid growth and the need for speedier acquisition of land rights emerged.

The distribution network also relies on voluntary agreements with landowners, failing which, compulsory acquisition tools must be deployed. Voluntary agreements can be time-consuming to put in place, depending on the attitude of landowners in a world where property rights are powerful.

Upgrades to Scotland’s electricity infrastructure will continue to be a slow burn until the relevant legislation is also upgraded. 


This is all in stark contrast to the position of telecoms operators, whose powers have been strengthened in recent years by favourable government policy. These policies were intended to give operators the tools to roll out a network designed to improve telecoms connectivity across the country (including 5G), with all the economic benefits that come with it.

The Electronic Communications Code of 2017 replaced the original Telecoms Code of 1984. The updated Code weakens the position of landowners and reduces the scope for operators to have to pay rents which would make the telecoms network more expensive to develop. The Code facilitates the expansion of a physical network at a pace commensurate with the need for rapid upgrade in the national interest. 

Not many would argue with the policy reasons behind the new Code, and it is fair to suggest that not many would argue with the need for electricity networks to be upgraded to assist with the urgent need for a move towards greater reliance on renewable power. It is surely time, therefore, for the electricity industry to be given a modern makeover similar to that enjoyed by the telecoms operators:

  • to implement a legislative framework which brings the laws of compulsory purchase out of the Victorian era and into the 21st century;
  • to remove ambiguities and complex rules; and
  • to make it easier to implement major projects intended to benefit the country as whole.