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by Ian Taylor
05 September 2023
Associate Feature: Communities are not behind the pylons and substations, this is why

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Associate Feature: Communities are not behind the pylons and substations, this is why

The dust has started to settle on the Winser Report, which came out last month and made some bold but sensible recommendations on the future development of the UK’s grid network. 

As a ScotWind developer, we sit in the eye of this storm – we are waiting to know our grid connection dates (and even the location, for Bowdun) and we will begin public consultations on our onshore substations and cable routes in the coming months.

Our grid network badly needs development after decades of under-investment and as our world broils in wars and extreme weather, bringing new offshore wind online is vital. When we speak to people in local communities, and even when we engage with the action groups campaigning against the new infrastructure, this is all well understood.

What remains mysterious are the workings of the electrical network itself; the complex dance of relationships involved (Ofgem, National Grid ESO, SSEN, local planning departments, UK and Scottish Government, and offshore wind developers like us). 

That’s why people ask: Why are you putting that substation here? Why do we have to have the cables? Why are you using pylons there but underground cables over there? Why does Scotland have to generate so much of the electricity? These should not be dismissed as NIMBY questions – they are valid questions and anyone who loves this land is perfectly entitled to ask them.

Let’s tackle the core issue first. If I could summarise the Winser Report’s findings in my own words, I’d say: all parties are trying their best in the midst of outdated regulations, clashing frameworks, and lack of clarity on community benefit. Added to that are over-loaded local planning departments trying to evaluate infrastructure that, in reality, falls under national planning laws. 

Here, we’ll try and tackle the three key questions emerging from local communities living near the proposed infrastructure.

Substation and cable locations
The main thing to understand is that these locations are decided in a rational way. Onshore grid connection points for offshore wind farms are assigned to us by National Grid through a process called Holistic Network Design (HND). Locations are chosen after analysing a variety of routes and weighing them for environmental, social, and economic impact (routes that will be costly to build and maintain put money on energy bills, so these are ruled out ).

The Winser Report calls for Ofgem, which is there to act on behalf of the consumer, to play an oversight role in this process, partly to give greater reassurance to stakeholders.

Even more fundamental, in my view, is the need for Crown Estate Scotland to be working with National Grid before wind farm sites are leased out (not afterwards) and present developers with their routes and locations at that point. This avoids the free-for-all where offshore wind developers scour coastlines in competition with one another and then enter the uncertainty of the HND process.

Pylons versus underground cables
There is no bad guy here. Pylons are the best choice when running cables over very long distances (to underground them would come at multiple times the cost and mean digging trenches across huge areas of the landscape with knock-on costs to environment, agriculture and energy bill-payers!). 

For the record, TWP is likely to use underground cables. Why? Because our distances from shore to substation are short, making the environmental impact less of an issue while removing the need to add yet more pylons.

This needs much better explanation to the communities for them to take part in consultations meaningfully. Beyond that, as Nick Winser has pointed out, we need to have much better back-up from the state with agreed public guidance on “how, where, and why lines should be onshore or offshore, overhead or underground, lattice pylons or novel designs.”

Why here? Why Scotland?
I’ll answer this: We’re a country with magnificent wind resource at a time when we need to replace fossil fuel use quickly, not just here, but across Europe. We have more than we need, but not all countries have such resource: Would it really be right not to exploit and export it? Do we miss out on a moment of destiny where we lead on areas like floating wind and green hydrogen, create the local jobs and grasp export markets for the technologies and services? 

When it comes to the question of: Why my village? We need to explain the process behind the choice better. We can turn this question back to the communities, they can tell us how it should look. Could we use space to restore historic and disappeared orchards, landscaped gardens, playgrounds, rooms within the building for community use, green walls, funding for local initiatives?

And as Nick Winser pointed out, direct payments and community benefit funds would be a fair way to treat people living opposite pylons or substations. We are not against this, it would create some certainty for us too. 

But, Government, please set the guidance and standardise this nationwide, or do we enter into endless negotiations and back-room deals where the louder communities get paid more than others? 

As the presence of offshore wind grows in our seascapes and brings more cabling onshore, we need to ensure that robust, quantified and clear rules exist about how developers work with communities and other maritime industries. With a good framework, we can achieve strong, harmonious relationships with everyone.

This article is sponsored by Thistle Wind Partners


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