Electrification will have a major impact on Britain’s landscape, with pylon implications for Dorset, says Rupert Hardy of North Dorset CPRE
Last year, residents in West Dorset celebrated the removal of 22 electricity pylons in the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) – which was done at huge expense. Just 12 months later, a headline in the Daily Express read: “Pylon Hell to Descend on Britain” as the media realised the physical effect of the electrification of Britain in the pursuit of Net Zero.
What does this mean for Dorset?
In the 1920s and ‘30s CPRE was battling to protect the countryside from unsightly pylons as the National Grid was first rolled out. Once again CPRE faces a new invasion – but on a scale not seriously envisaged before, thanks partly to the development of renewable energy.
This summer Nick Winser, the UK Electricity Networks Commissioner, laid out radical de-carbonisation plans – although the government has still to accept their conclusions, which are designed to speed up the roll-out of thousands of miles of high voltage cables to connect new wind and solar farms with users of electric vehicles, EV recharging points and heat pumps.
Currently it can take up to 14 years to build new power lines, so planning needs to be streamlined and the grid massively restructured to achieve his proposed seven years. It looks very ambitious.
Mr Winser and the National Grid have been coy about the number of new cables and pylons needed. Unfortunately, the introduction of intermittent and remotely-located renewable energy generators such as wind farms has resulted in the need for new grid lines. Their intermittency is a key issue; while the average power generated by solar farms is only 10 per cent of their peak capacity, the grid lines obviously need to accommodate peak power.
The Express quoted Sarah Williams, Director of Regulation and Asset Strategy at Wales and West Utilities, saying the need was for 90,000 pylons, compared to the 22,000 now covering 4,300 miles of the UK. A senior source who worked at the old Department of Energy guessed it might be less than 70,000 pylons – but this is still a huge expansion and it will be expensive.
It is easy to be sceptical over whether any government – and certainly not this one, seeking re-election soon, with Sunak backtracking on green measures – will push ahead given the enormous local opposition already being voiced.
Dorset will be less affected
East Anglia is likely to be the worst affected area in the UK, with the need to connect offshore windpower to major power users such as London. Local protesters in East Anglia are arguing for burying the cables underground or offshore, but the cost is huge. Most estimates suggest an increased cost ratio of 10:1 for onshore burial or 4:1 for offshore, when compared with overground pylons. A cash-strapped government is unlikely to bury cables unless absolutely necessary across protected land.
The National Grid has been extolling the virtues of a new generation of Danish-designed pylons, called the T-pylon, which are cheaper to install. They have been used in Somerset to connect the new power station at Hinkley Point, but feedback from residents has not been positive. Because the design is not only more solid than the familiar century-old design, but also white, they stand out in the landscape far more than the old taller lattice designs, despite being only 35m high. They are also criticised for interfering more with WiFi, and for being noisier. The new 112 mile high voltage transmission line proposed for East Anglia uses the old lattice design.
Local campaigners and MPs in East Anglia have been vocal in their opposition. Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin, who is not a climate sceptic, said: ‘I have never known a single issue raise so much passion in my constituency … whether it is Gainsborough country or Constable country, we’re talking about despoiling really serious parts of our national heritage.’
The government is also looking at whether local residents could be compensated if such infrastructure was built close to their homes. However CPRE does not see a way to make this fair and we would prefer community benefits instead.
Dorset will be less affected than East Anglia – we have no offshore windpower, and the huge capacity of the Chickerell terminal will reduce the need for more high voltage transmission lines. However, the development of solar farms across the county will still require the roll-out of lower voltage cables, with smaller, less obtrusive, 35-40m high pylons. Dorset’s relative isolation is currently a benefit! Half the county is likely to be spared from overground cabling too, given the size of the AONBs.
We need to focus more on nuclear power to provide the steady baseload in order to offset the intermittency of renewable power – new nuclear power stations on old sites would need little additional cabling. More rooftop solar would reduce grid issues, as the power generation and its subsequent use would be in the same building, unlike greenfield sites. More major battery storage facilities will be needed – as long as they are located away from population centres. Dorset residents will have to accept many more pylons, but less unsightly ones than those for high voltage. Yet there will be battles over which proposed sites do less harm to our beautiful countryside and are more appropriate to build on.
If you are moving home in Dorset and do not like pylons, may I suggest you buy within an AONB, and if not, install rooftop solar without delay.