The development of alternative sources of energy must not be allowed to impact adversely on the environment argue Dyfrig Hughes and Martin Barlow
Wales is rich in its natural resources, and blessed by its natural beauty. It is little wonder, therefore, that the environment in Wales has been valued at £8.8bn, and its tourism industry at £4.2bn. With this comes responsibility, not just for Wales’ population, but for tourists and future generations too. Non-carbon-based energy is the only way to secure Wales’ resources for the future, and the potential for marine, hydro and solar, onshore and offshore wind power are clear.
However, development in alternative sources of energy must not be allowed to impact on the environment in ways other than in which carbon-based energy impacts on the climate. Current infrastructure for electricity transmission is designed around power stations, located mainly in semi-urban locations, whereas renewable energy generation, such as from onshore wind farms, requires connections from rural, remote areas to the existing national grid. The pylons used to carry the power-lines often cut through pristine countryside and have a greater negative impact on tourism, upon which Wales is so dependent, than the wind turbines they serve. Like water and gas pipes, electricity cables can be buried underground and out of sight.
The latest case in point is the UK Government’s approval of SP Manweb’s planning application to build 11 miles of overhead high-voltage lines connecting the Clocaenog wind farm to a sub-station at St Asaph in north Wales. These are to be suspended on 15-metre high, double-pole pylons with a steel lattice frame for the full length of the route.
This site is part of the Vale of Clwyd, celebrated for centuries in poetry and prose. Its beauty, and that of the more elevated areas leading down to it, will be spoiled, as will two exceptional Grade II* listed buildings, including the 16th Century home of “Mam Cymru” (Mother of Wales) Catrin (Katheryn of) Berain. These are beautiful, precious and much-loved landscapes which have formed the histories and identities of their local communities over generations.
The developers argue that the cost of undergrounding – which would of course make the cables invisible – is about twice that of overhead lines; about an additional £16.6m. And in granting permission, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy considered that the balance of benefits of the underground alternative would not outweigh the extra economic costs.
But these calculations ignore the costs of decommissioning which must take place – at the expense of UK electricity bill payers – after 30 years. Dismantling overhead cables and pylons is expected to cost around £10m, whereas with undergrounding, there are no decommissioning costs – cables are just left in the ground. Viewing this from a broader perspective makes the cost-benefit analysis more favourable towards undergrounding.
Wales should be empowered to decide for itself on the nature of connections from TAN-8 defined strategic areas. The costs of undergrounding could be shared by wind farm developers (instead, for instance, of so-called community compensation funds), and the Welsh Government, whose income from turbines on Woodland Estate alone is about £300m. In the interests of preserving the environment in more ways than one, by all means encourage renewable energy production, but discourage the blight of pylons and overhead line connections.
The Pylon the Pressure Group which was established to campaign for undergrounding has won the right to a Judicial Review hearing to challenge the Secretary of State’s decision. The case has national significance and is being followed closely by other utilities companies and their legal advisers, since any electricity generation scheme, whether wind, solar or other, must have its high-voltage connection. Failure to win the Judicial Review would make it easier for developers to disregard legislation that currently protects our countryside and our national heritages, wherever they are in the UK. Under the heading ‘Underground Cables Yes, Pylon No!’ the Group is working innovatively using a bilingual crowdfunding website specialising in cases of social and environmental justice.