A corner of the Somerset Levels could be about to change forever with plans for three separate wind farms and a new pylon route. Alan Williams reports.
The Somerset Levels are unquestionably one of the more unique natural features of the West Country landscape.
Flat for almost as far as the eye can see, with wildlife streaming from reedbeds and rhines that have been here for millennia.
From the Mendip Hills to the north and the Poldens in the south, there isn’t much putting its head above the parapet.
It is an idyllic spot and one locals and conservation groups have fought long and hard to preserve.
But over the next couple of years, the residents of towns and villages on the western edge of the Levels could get a number of new neighbours.
It is for that reason the wildlife and quaint cottages have a new rival when it comes to the most common sights in this neck of the woods.
Placards are now a unmissable feature and you cannot drive more than a hundred yards without seeing a poster appealing against a wind turbine or a line of pylons.
Plans for two wind farms – with four turbines from Stroud-based Ecotricity west of the M5 and five from EDF Energy east of the motorway – are going through the planning process and a third plan has just been submitted for a site near Rooksbridge, a few miles up the A38.
Then, weaving between and around them, could be a National Grid-proposed route for pylons which would transport electricity from Hinkley Point to Avonmouth.
These kind of developments seem to cause controversy wherever they are planned – let’s face it, pylons and turbines do carry with them a certain Marmite effect.
But the idea of placing them in an area where the tallest things are houses and trees has stirred the locals into action.
Six or seven groups are fighting the pylon plans and several more have risen up against the wind farm proposals.
As Paul Hipwell, chairman of the No Moor Pylons group, puts it: “This is not just about keeping our view now, it is about preserving the landscape for future generations.”
His group was set up two years ago and has members with plenty of experience in the fields of engineering, planning and putting forward legal arguments.
“I guess we are nimbies and in a sense proud of it, but it was always important to us from an early stage to suggest genuine alternatives,” said the Badgworth resident.
“We have always been told it would cost ten times more to bury cables than build pylons but expert reports haven’t been able to bear this out.
“They have to bury them through the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty north of the Mendips so why not do it along the whole route.
“Pylons are a very dated technology and were designed at a time when you needed to get energy from coal-fired power stations in the centre of the country out to the cities and coastal areas.
“But with nuclear power and renewable technology now on the coast, the way you transport power has to develop.
“Our argument is this scheme could be a real trailblazer. Jobs could be created in advancing technology, which is already being used in many projects across Europe.
“We have our local politicians on side and will keep fighting to influence Ofgem and ministers because someone needs to take a holistic approach for the next 50 years and more.”
The expert report referred to by Mr Hipwell was commissioned by the Government from Dutch energy consultant KEMA. It was due to be published as part of National Grid’s own review into using pylons, but has been delayed because the analysts said they were not given enough data.
KEMA was collecting information from various companies in several countries and a spokesman for Nation Grid said: “We provided all the information we possibly could and are disappointed that the report has been delayed.”
Meanwhile, residents further down the A38 have no qualms about saying their main concern is the impact they feel wind turbines would have on their quality of life.
EDF Energy and Ecotricity’s sites would turn the heads of the tens of thousands of people travelling to and from the South West each year.
But for residents in Huntspill, Puriton, Woolavington and other nearby communities they would be a permanent fixture as they looked from their homes and gardens.
As it stands, both applications are set to be determined by Sedgemoor District Council in mid-August.
Richard Sucksmith, from the Huntspill Wind Farm Action Group, said: “We are not against renewable energy per se. There are turbines at Avonmouth which is appropriate because it is an industrial area. But there is no way they are the right thing for here.”
The other energy provider in this part of Somerset is Hinkley Point, with a new nuclear reactor planned there by 2017 – so do the residents feel that preferable to having renewables on their doorstep?
“At least with Hinkley there are permanent jobs whereas there would be none with the wind,” says Mr Sucksmith.
The group is committed to fighting the plans all the way, with member Julie Trott adding: “If the decision goes against us we will appeal, even though we might have to find £50,000 in legal costs.”
One thing the residents are struggling to understand is why two plans have suddenly been submitted for an area with no present wind farms.
Mike Cheshire, spokesman for Ecotricity, said firms were constrained as to where they can site turbines with areas such as AONBs and towns instantly ruled out.
Before its plans went in, there were years of research and surveys to make sure the site would do everything the company wanted.
He said: “We take a great deal of care choosing a site – it has to meet around 27 typical criteria on paper before it ever goes any further.
“It’s all about striking a balance, having the maximum environmental benefit for the least environmental impact.
Every one of us uses electricity, so we all have a responsibility to decide where it comes from now and for future generations.”
Dennis Garry, EDF Energy renewables’ development manager for the project, added: “We believe that the Withy End Farm site is very suitable for this kind of development, but following we revised the plans, reducing the turbines from nine to five.
“We believe the challenge of tackling climate change and maintaining affordable energy can be met through greater efficiency and the generation of electricity from a diverse range of sources including nuclear and renewables.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding