Power play to stop the pylons
THE incomparable Lake District has been saved from an intrusive line of electricity pylons that threatened to march more than 14 miles across some of the loveliest countryside of England. National Grid should be congratulated for having agreed to put its cables underground and to remove a number of existing pylons so that Wordsworth’s country can be free of pylons for the first time for 50 years—although the benefit stops 32ft outside the national park boundary.
There are 4,475 miles of power lines running over the UK, of which 870 are underground. Already, we accept as normal the most expensive of underground works—those in urban areas— however, in general, power lines are strung between pylons rather than hidden below ground because of the horrendous cost difference. That can be anything between four and 14 times as much—a real issue in anyone’s economics. However, there is still a debate whenever new pylons are proposed and there has even been some effort to remove the worst of the existing eyesores. Last year, National Grid produced a £500 million scheme that replaced 45 pylons in the most precious of our landscapes in Snowdonia, Dorset, the New Forest and the Peak District.
That was a lot of money to achieve a relatively small inroad into a huge inheritance of badly planned pylons and there’s very little chance of anything more radical in the future. We’re pretty much stuck with the pylons we have and so, as the National Grid is now proposing big schemes across some of our most beautiful countryside, the real question is not about the past, but about the future. How much damage are we prepared to do in order to keep the lights on? What price do we put on the Welsh hill country or the Scottish Highlands, let alone the softer and more subtle English rural scene?
All the signs are that electricity prices will rise over the coming decade. Increased efficiency of our equipment, smart metering and smart grids should counter much of that. The additional costs we add to bills to pay for the necessary decarbonisation of electricity generation does genuinely seem to be covered by the efficiency savings now available, not least from the deployment of LED lighting, the savings from effective heating controls such as Nest and Hive and the much lower power demands of modern washers and dryers, kettles and vacuum cleaners. Nonetheless, burdening bills with the long-term cost of undergrounding is not something to be undertaken lightly. We have to remember that just removing those 45 pylons will cost every consumer 22p a year for the next 40 years.
However, important new power lines are needed, not least to link up with offshore wind and the interconnectors we hope to build with Norway and the rest of Europe. These are bound to cross unspoilt countryside and countrymen and their allies are already out there defending their heritage. However, if we’re to get the right balance between cost and damage, we need to be very disciplined. It is simply not feasible to expect all to go underground. We need to identify clearly the best routes and the parts of those routes that must be protected from pylons.
This will require much more openness from National Grid and will also need an urgent change in the law. Planning consent for power lines is divorced from that for the generating stations they serve. We need joined-up thinking and joined-up costing so they cause the least damage to the countryside at the lowest cost. Only through proper decision-making can we protect our heritage in a way we can afford.
Only through proper decisionmaking can we protect our heritage’
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