The voice of the networks

Looking after the environment

The UK and Ireland’s energy networks are playing a pivotal role in facilitating the introduction of the low carbon economy and supporting the move to net-zero emissions. We're also playing our part when operating the networks.

Wind farm visible through the clouds

Our networks play a pivotal role in facilitating the introduction of the low carbon economy and development of advanced technologies that promise to improve the efficient energy use. They also have responsibility to effectively manage the impact of renewable generation on the environment.

Our environmental commitment

We work hard to reduce or eliminate:

  • carbon emission levels
  • release of hazardous substances used in electricity distribution
  • gas leakage from the gas pipelines.

Gradually, sustainable business practices are facilitating the introduction of the circular economy and reducing the levels of generated waste through recycling and recovery.

Our environment committee has produced a series of environment briefings (found in our Resource library) providing general information on current environmental issues relevant to the activities of member companies.

  • Partnership Agreement

    The energy networks’ environmental commitment is reflected in a Partnership Agreement with the Environment Agency.

    The agreement outlines the arrangements for the electricity network operators and the regulator to work together to manage and reduce environmental risks, and for the companies to develop suitable guidance material on the key issues within the sector.

  • Ecological and archaeological management

    Ecological and archaeological management guidance has been drawn up under the framework of the agreement on the management of ecologically sensitive and archaeologically important sites.

    This provides an introduction to staff on the key procedures and activities required to avoid or minimise any environmental impact on such sites. It contains information on the legislative, planning and design, and licence requirements, along with an overview of key protected habitats and species. It does not represent definitive guidance, but is issued in support of more detailed existing company practices.

  • Steel-lattice tower maintenance

    The operation of the networks requires maintenance of equipment located on public and private land and is necessary for the continued performance and reliability of these assets. All companies ensure that such work conforms to the principles outlined in the Transmission and Distribution Steel Lattice Tower Refurbishment Good Practice Guide.

  • Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6)

    Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) is a gas with excellent electrical insulation and other properties, which have led to its widespread use in electrical switchgear and in a number of other industrial applications. However, there is concern over the SF6 that escapes into the atmosphere since it is a potent greenhouse gas.

    The Kyoto Protocol to the Climate Change Convention has recognised the need to curb emissions of all greenhouse gases, including SF6.

    We are committed to reducing the release of greenhouse gasses caused by the operation of electricity and gas networks and the UK electricity industry is supporting Government initiatives to ensure the implementation of sound policies for the control and use of SF6.

    European electricity industries have agreed a set of actions to reduce emissions of the gas to the atmosphere with manufacturers of electrical equipment that uses SF6. Under a programme of continuous improvement, leakage rates are being reduced in cooperation with power equipment manufacturers.

    Environment Briefing 01 - Sulphur Hexafluoride looks at the potential impact of SF6 on the environment and the implications for the electricity industry.

Fluid-filled cables

Electricity companies own and operate underground fluid-filled cables as part of their network assets. They are operated and managed in line with the principles of a long-standing National Operating Code agreement with the Environment Agency.

Fluid-filled cables have been in operation in the UK since the 1960s and are employed by the electricity transmission and distribution network companies at various voltages. The fluid within the cable acts as an electrical insulator.

Fluid-filled cables are expensive and considered a major network asset, representing a significant proportion of the electricity network, though our members do not install new fluid-filled cable routes. Fluid-filled cables are extremely reliable and our member companies regularly review the asset lifetime of existing cables as part of their capital investment programmes, taking into account operational and environmental performance when considering cable replacement.

  • Environmental impact

    Though modern cable fluid is biodegradable and the environmental risk associated with cable fluid leaks is low, our members do recognise the potential environmental impact of any failure and the benefit of effective asset management.

    The continued use of fluid-filled cables presents a low risk to the environment providing assets are well managed and replaced at the right time. However any increase in the current rate of replacement has to be funded through the industry price control process, given the significant costs incurred for limited environmental benefit.

  • National Operating Code

    In conjunction with the Environment Agency, we have drawn up a voluntary National Operating Code for the management of fluid-filled cables. Companies regularly report all details of any leaks to the Environment Agency and review routes to minimising any environmental impact from operation through operational procedures, new developments in technology and learning from best practice.

  • FFC Liaison Group

    Our Fluid-filled Cable (FFC) liaison group oversees the industry’s approach to asset operation and has produced the National Operating Code to support employees.

  • Workshop resources

    Joint workshops are run by the industry and the Environment Agency as an employee training programme to ensure effective implementation of the Operating Code. Workshop presentations are available from our Resource library in support of raising awareness of the issues associated with managing fluid-filled cables.

  • Decommissioning

    Decommissioning of fluid-filled cables at the end of their operational life also requires effective and safe management to determine environmental impacts and appropriate decommissioning methods. The Environmental Decommissioning – FFC Guide details options for consideration prior to undertaking any decommissioning work.

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs)

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are chemicals that persist in the environment, bioaccumulate through the food web, and pose a risk of causing adverse effects to human health and the environment. This group of priority pollutants consists of:

  • pesticides, such as Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT)
  • unintentional by-products of industrial processes, such as dioxins and furans
  • industrial chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

    Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are man-made chemicals known to be toxic and harmful to human health and the environment. They are chemically inert, flame resistant, and stable at high temperatures. Due to fire-resistant properties, PCBs have been widely used in electrical equipment, such as wire and cable coatings and insulation, but this method is now banned.

    Toxic effects have been reported in wildlife where PCBs have been found to bioaccumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and humans via the food chain. The industry is working to remove all remaining use and presence of this material in line with revised European and UK Regulations.

    Historically PCBs were introduced via the supply chain into insulating oil and some electrical equipment (mainly power transformers) due to their low flammability and high dielectric constant. The same insulating oil was used by the supply chain in other equipment such as capacitors, bushings and instrument transformers.

    Our network members have never specified insulating oil containing PCBs in equipment. As they became aware of the issues associated with PCBs, they took appropriate actions to ban PCBs from the supply chain and start determining the level of PCB contamination within electrical transmission and distribution assets. Since the 1980s, our network members have continued to act responsibly in establishing and implementing fit for purpose processes and controls to manage the risk from PCBs posed to people and the environment, from the conception of asset design through service life to appropriate safe disposal.

    The 2019 recast of the EU POP Regulation introduces new requirements for our networks in relation to the permissions for the transformers and equipment:

    • lowering of the threshold for oil volume from 5 litres down to 50 ml
    • removal of the permission for the transformer where they can be used until the end of their useful life

    Together with our members, we have formulated a practical industry strategy that meets our environmental obligations and complies with the requirements of the recast EU POP Regulation.

    Environment Briefing 04 - Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) details the effects of PCBs on the natural environment, relevant legislation and the implications of PCBs for the energy industry.

Environmental waste management

Effective waste management is an important part of any environmental management system. Waste is defined as any substance or object which you discard, intend to discard, or are required to discard and can be generated directly from operations and offices, and by suppliers and contractors working on their behalf.

Our energy networks have a Duty of Care to ensure that all waste is properly managed through safe storage, transport, treatment or disposal of waste without harming either the environment or people. Responsible waste management includes:

  • classify waste before it is collected, disposed of or recovered
  • identify and secure the requirements for all necessary licenses, permits, registrations and authorisations for premises and activities
  • identify suitable waste management options
  • identify the controls for the movement of waste
  • complete waste documents and maintain records
  • work with environmental regulators on industry waste issues
  • Waste types

    Wastes such as solvents, asbestos and oils, are most hazardous to the environment and human health. These are classified as hazardous or special waste materials and must be stored, handled, transported and disposed of differently to non-hazardous wastes. Non-hazardous materials such as paper, card, glass, metals and plastics can often be reused or recycled.

    Common waste materials handled and treated by the network companies include:

    • Construction and demolition waste
    • Excavated material (asphalt, tarmac, contaminated soil)
    • Creosote wood poles
    • Scrap metal and cables
    • Electrical and electronic equipment (transformers, tools, computers, batteries, lights)
    • Hazardous chemicals (solvents, pesticides, cleaning materials)
    • Mineral insulating oil
    • Asbestos waste
    • Vegetation waste
    • Paper/cardboard/office waste
    • Plastic waste (one use plastics, packaging material)
    • Fly-tipping waste
  • Waste hierarchy

    Network operators have a responsibility to assess and employ waste management options in the order of their environmental impact in line with the waste hierarchy:

    1. Reduce
    2. Re-use
    3. Recycle
    4. Recovery
    5. Disposal

    Businesses actively pursue opportunities to reduce waste production with improvements in the re-use, recycling or recovery of materials from construction, operational and office activities. Disposal is considered the least preferred option.

  • Business practices

    Businesses collect data, monitor and report on waste streams and the volumes reused, recycled and disposed of to measure progress against company objectives and targets. Progress is assessed through internal and external environmental audits in line with the certification requirements of ISO 14001.

    Staff are provided with the necessary information, training and skills to ensure the necessary controls and procedures are implemented. This includes employing and managing waste contractors and carriers, and maintenance of the documentation, permits and records required by law.

    Companies work to identify opportunities to improve waste management practices that in turn will reduce any risk of environmental pollution or contamination to land, water and air. This requires:

    • Regular review of the treatment options for the management of hazardous and non-hazardous waste
    • Consideration of Source – Pathway – Receptor routes for waste steams to minimise any environmental risks
    • Maintenance and testing of effective emergency response procedure
    • Review of the requirements of new environmental legislation and implement suitable control measures
    • Adoption of best practice policies and procedures through working with the environmental regulators and other industry partners