Hundreds of miles of giant electricity pylon lines are planned to be driven through some of Britain’s finest landscape – including at least two national parks – to serve the growing wind farm industry.
Documents published online by the Government and National Grid show plans for 160ft pylons cutting across Snowdonia, mid-Wales, the Lake District and other unspoilt countryside. Each pylon will be the height of a 15-storey tower block.
The papers outline for the first time the extent of planned pylon development, with a number of previously unpublicised schemes added to existing proposals.
The lines are needed to carry the electricity from wind farms – most in isolated parts of northern and western Britain – to cities further south and east, where most people live.
Massive offshore wind farms in the North Sea will also require transmission lines through rural East Anglia and Lincolnshire to get electricity to consumers in London and the Midlands, the documents show.
Wind farms in the Irish Sea may spawn transmission lines through the Yorkshire Dales or Forest of Bowland. Many existing power lines – currently with smaller, shorter and less intrusive pylons – will be upgraded to the 160ft standard, including some in urban areas.
National Grid, which controls most of the British electricity transmission network, insisted that the plans in the documents did not “prejudge future decisions about what projects to develop.”
However, Duncan Burt, its head of customer services, said that the company had signed contracts to connect 43 gigawatts of renewable power, mostly new wind farms, to the grid by 2020.
The cost of the land transmission infrastructure required for this will be at least £8.8 billion over the next eight years alone, the reports say, almost double previous estimates. The figure further undermines the economics of wind power, which needs more than £500 million a year in subsidies.
Wind farms are costlier to connect because they tend to be more dispersed, and further away from population centres, than traditional power stations.
However, figures produced for the Government – known as “levelised costs” – that are used to compare the price of wind with other technologies do not include the costs of the extra infrastructure needed.
Colin Gibson, former power network director at National Grid, said: “I estimate the extra costs of having wind are coming out at £80 per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. Even if the capital cost of building a wind farm was zero, it would still be more expensive than a conventional power station because of the costs of integrating it into the grid.”
Most of the plans, if proceeded with, will be classed as “nationally significant infrastructure projects” and decided by the Planning Inspectorate, a quango, not local councils. Ministers in Whitehall, Cardiff or Edinburgh will have the final say.
The pylon plans are in two obscure reports – Transmission Networks Quarterly Connections Update, published on the National Grid website last month, and a report by the Electricity Networks Strategy Group, published on the Department of Energy and Climate Change site four months ago, but unpublicised until now.
Some of the projects, such as a new pylon line through Constable country on the Essex/Suffolk border, are well known and have attracted opposition. Others have been less publicised.
Among the most damaging is a proposed link through Snowdonia National Park, running from Dinorwig on the Menai Strait to Ffestiniog. The documents specify only that it will be in a 10-mile wide corridor, but any route in that corridor would be within sight of Snowdon.
The reports also show a new power line corridor from Quernmore, near Lancaster, across the Pennines to Bradford, taking power lines from new Irish Sea wind farms either through the Yorkshire Dales or Forest of Bowland, an area of outstanding natural beauty.
A new line is also planned for the western end of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, between Bridgwater and Bristol, another area of outstanding natural beauty. Hundreds of miles of existing smaller lines will be upgraded to larger pylons, including a power line running down the Lea Valley to Hackney in London, and others from Barking, east London, through Essex.
The proliferation of Scottish wind farms means that existing lines across the Border are at capacity. Relief power lines are proposed along the eastern edge of the Lake District National Park.
In Scotland work has started on a 160-mile pylon line running through the heart of the Highlands from Beauly, near Inverness, to Denny, south of Stirling, dominating several “Munros”, destroying a tourist vista of Stirling Castle and overshadowing the battle site at Bannockburn.
Outside Scotland, however, some schemes are creating a backlash against wind energy. In mid-Wales, near Welshpool, 600 wind turbines are proposed, along with a 30-mile pylon line to link them to the grid near Shrewsbury. Massive opposition to the plans led to the Liberal Democrats, who support wind farms, losing the local Welsh Assembly seat at elections last year.
Jonathon Wilkinson, a farmer and chairman of Montgomeryshire Against Pylons, said “I hadn’t got a strong view for or against wind farms, but the pylons managed to create this perfect storm, uniting people who were against wind farms with people who were against pylons, who hadn’t particularly been allies before.”
In Wales the target for wind energy has now been reduced by a fifth after concern at the level of development.
The political climate in England is also shifting. George Osborne, the Chancellor, is reportedly pushing for a 25 per cent cut in subsidies for onshore wind farms.
In a significant development, the Treasury announced a spending cap on subsidies for renewable energy.
In evidence to the energy select committee this month, the wind industry expressed dismay about the cap. Ian Marchant, chief executive of SSE, the largest generator of renewable electricity in Britain, described it as politically driven and short-term.
“The industry is terrified about the loss of subsidies,” John Constable, of the Renewable Energy Foundation, said. “But the mood is shifting against using public money to de-risk investments in renewables.”
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