Fight the pylon blight

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.  



Dyfrig Hughes and Martin Barlow write here in their personal capacities on behalf of the Pylon the Pressure Group [email protected]

6 thoughts on “Fight the pylon blight

  1. It’s a shame that the image used to illustrate this article is of a 275/440 kV pylon rather than the much smaller one that will be used in the case of the Clocaenog project. It misrepresents the actual visual impact of the grid connect scheme.

    And yes, there will be visual impact – as there is with any development of any nature. The key issue is whether the impact on balance outweighs the benefit of the development, and in the particular case of energy developments, whether the alternative costs for undergrounding are deemed to be too high by the regulators. The regulators need to assess the issue of cost, not for the developers, but for the end user (electricity bill payers).

    Wales is the worst-performing country of the four home nations for renewable electricity and the Clocaenog project is an important component of Wales’ renewable energy mix.

    With increasingly dire warnings about the existing impacts of climate change, and the terrible predictions of future havoc arising from large-scale melting of glaciers and ice shelves, we must develop at the greatest possible speed our renewable energy assets, whilst ensuring that the developments and the grid infrastructure are designed as sensitively as possible.

  2. If you can point us in the direction of good quality, free to reuse images of the right kind of pylon, that’d be helpful!

  3. This article doesn’t stand up to its own internal logic. There is no such thing as “pristine countryside”, there hasn’t been since the agricultural revolution. That’s why it’s full of fields, hedges, roads, building and industries such as farming & tourism, and not thousands of square miles of untouched ancient woodland & bears. What the ‘Pylon the Pressure Group’ are actually talking about is preserving a fantasy based on their own prejudices. It seems that invariably, this fantasy is backwards looking, and one which is designed to exclude anyone, or anything they don’t agree with.

    That’s why it’s vital that this kind of damaging, backwards looking ideology needs to be challenged and defeated. It is hurting future generations who will have to bear the cost – be that on their bills, in their air quality, or with their health. We have already seen the damage done by similar campaigns in Powys which have delayed renewable energy developments for several years. Temporary power-cuts are a frequent event. Consumer bills are increasing. And jobs and investment has been lost.

    Finally it’s worth pointing out that the following sentence makes no sense (both in terms of content and grammar) : “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.”

  4. Well now, let’s not sink into an abyss of aesthetic relativism. The Welsh countryside is not unchanged by humans, who after all have been occupying it for thousands of years. Nonetheless much of it is beautiful and attractive to visitors. The latter is a fact not a fantasy. Electricity pylons, large or small do not enhance its beauty. Most people find them bloody ugly and as such they are a deterrent to visitors. A loss of visual amenity with possible implications for businesses based on tourism are legitimate considerations in considering the net benefit of a project. For myself I’d rather live with the occasional power cut than have my favourite landscape desecrated by pylons. I live in town, by the way so this isn’t nimbyism. And future generations are more likely to worry about their countryside than our power cuts so A76 can lay off the moral superiority.

  5. “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.” That isn’t a good argument, because carbon-based energy also impacts on the visual environment in the same way. There is a horrible line of pylons, a double row of them, across south Pembrokeshire and into Carmarthenshire, which I believe comes from the gas-fired Pembroke power station. There is a beautiful stretch of scenic railway line alongside the River Towy, between Carmarthen and Ferryside. Beautiful that is apart from that abominable double row of pylons, which crosses the Towy part-way along.

    The visual impact of wind turbines (and even, I suppose, gas-fired power stations) is perhaps acceptable, because they are providing a benefit (electricity). Pylons do not provide a benefit (since underground cables can do the same job) and are much uglier than most wind turbine designs currently used in Britain; please can we get rid of them.

    As for climate-change though, it is depressing that wind turbines (and solar farms, which in many cases have a worse visual impact than wind turbines) seem to be the only mitigating measures being taken forward. Other sectors are moving in the wrong direction; in transport for example we have proposals for a third runway at Heathrow and alarming rumours that the UK government may withdraw funding for rail electrification, locking us into intensive use of diesel trains for years to come. Heathrow alone could undo the carbon reductions brought about by several large wind farms, and little or no consideration seems to be given to encouraging modal shift from private cars to buses. The TrawsCymru bus network is a joke, with one service taking such an indirect route that it takes almost twice as long as driving and the Welsh Government continues to back bypass schemes (the biggest being the second M4 around Newport) which provide for, and encourage, increased car use.

  6. Happy to be superior, moral or otherwise. While some may be happy with power cuts, it would be a shame to condemn other families and businesses to wallow in the dark with you.

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