Gareth Burden, project director for London Power Tunnels, discusses the second phase of the National Grid project, challenges faced and the future for London Power Tunnels
National Grid’s London Power Tunnels project is the biggest investment in the transmission system since the 1960s.
To provide some idea of scale and the complexity, it’s equivalent to replacing the M25 stretch of the UK’s motorway network.
Construction of this significant scheme started in March, as the country went into lockdown, however, as London Power Tunnels is deemed critical infrastructure, and vital to ensure a safe and secure supply to South London, we were able to continue with the project as planned despite Covid-19, with the correct safety measures in place.
The £1bn London Power Tunnels Project is an eighteen-year project to rewire the capital.
The second phase of works began this year, following the success of the original project, and is essential to replace existing electricity circuits which are coming towards the end of their useful life and currently buried beneath London’s roads. The new network of tunnels will span 32.5km in length, between Wimbledon and Crayford and will ensure a continued safe and secure supply of electricity to the city.
Challenges that are unique to lockdown
The Covid-19 pandemic forced us to completely re-evaluate how we operate. We needed to keep working, but we needed to be safe. We had to stop work and reorganise the project including our staff, contractors and suppliers to ensure we could keep working whilst maintain the safety of our workforce and our neighbours.
The pandemic has required us to make some changes, we are committed to ensuring we complete everything that we set out to do. It is a testament to the team that the project is still on time and budget.
As the director of the project, another concern for me has been the impact of lockdown on my team. When working through these difficult times, the health of the team has been of utmost importance, along with sustaining morale during a challenging period. We’ve ensured that all work has been carried under stringent health and safety measures to protect not just themselves but also the communities in which they operate.
Additionally, we have been mindful that some of our work has continued during a period when more people have been working from home, so naturally it has been noticed more.
Our aim has always been to minimise noise and disruption for our neighbours and the pandemic meant this was particularly important.
Construction in the capital
Even before the lockdown period, we were regularly meeting local residents, community groups, councillors, MPs and GLA members along the route, updating them on our plans and ensuring any queries were answered.
There are thousands of stakeholders to meet and this list is forever growing, as more people become interested in our work. Whilst the scale of this challenge is unique to London, it has also provided a real opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of the project.
With London’s dense population, it is crucial that we reduce disruption from the works as much as possible. This is why we are rewiring the capital by placing cables in deep underground tunnels.
The project is more ambitious as a result of this since we have to consider more elements with work underground, such as the existing tunnels and asset owners such as TfL and London Underground, changing ground conditions, consenting parties and landowners.
Our aim is to ensure that all the communities we work in understand what we are doing and why we are doing it, so engagement has to be thorough and wide-reaching. This is a challenge in itself since there are so many people, diverse groups and community organisations that we need to engage with throughout this process.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, our engagement with the community continued, though this had to be online and on the phone. Where we did speak to people in person the meetings were socially distanced, upholding the safety of residents and our staff.
Investing in the future
Despite these challenges, we want our work to leave a positive mark on the environment and the local community. This autumn, we are launching our partnership with MyKindaFuture, a scheme designed to promote STEM skills to over 100,000 pupils across South London.
There has never been a better time to invest in the next generation of engineers and diversify the profession, as we have calculated that we need an extra 400,000 engineers in the industry to help us achieve net-zero by 2050. That said, we have had to amend our approach to meet the challenges of Covid. This has meant working with MKF to convert our face-to-face programme into a digital offering, staffed and supported by volunteers from National Grid and MKF.
Our commitment to making the London Power Tunnels project sustainable remains a priority as we work towards National Grid’s net-zero target for 2050. We are currently recycling over 95% of waste removed from the ground and our tunnels – a feat that is hard to achieve on a project like this but one that we are determined to maintain as we go forward.
I am pleased to see that sustainability has gained a renewed importance within our industry recently in spite of the challenges brought about by the pandemic. We all need to play our part in creating a greener future for the built environment.
As we learn to work through the crisis, I am looking forward to what we will achieve, training the next generation of engineers, diversifying our workforce, delivering on time and on budget and, most importantly, re-wiring London and connecting with the capital via the programmes in the communities we are serving and working in.
I feel a great sense of optimism for the project’s future and pride in what the team has managed to accomplish during this difficult period, working to renew London’s transmission network for 2030 and beyond.