Fight to stop the new Super-Grid

Time to act
Time to act

Actor and broadcaster, Griff Rhys Jones has joined the battle against the Grid. He opposes the new electricity towers,or “Super pylons,” which are supposedly needed as part of the coming “Smart Grid.” Here is Griff’s manifesto against the new Super-Grid:

“We live in perplexing times for rationalists. The people of Suffolk have recently been presented with a “choice” by National Grid, the largest electricity provider. You may recognise the proposal from the school playground: “What do you want, a punch or a slap?”

The “punch” is a new length of super pylons across an exquisitely beautiful landscape (Gainsborough countryside). The “slap” is to take them farther south to join an existing run of pylons that already straddles the village of Hintlesham down to the River Stour at Lamarsh (Cedric Morris, Nash and Constable land). Ooof.

Some choice, eh? “Oh,” say the people of medieval Kersey on the northern route, “the slap suits us.” “Yes,” says the county council, “we prefer the slap.”

So let’s have a massive tranche of cables on 40m gantries, half a mile wide. And National Grid can piously announce that the people of Suffolk “chose” this abomination.

I apologise for this unpalatable truth, but we are actually a richer nation now than we were then. Given that we now store the entire Beatles’ catalogue in a fingernail, we have a right to expect that some of those hasty, ill-considered power supply solutions invented 100 years ago should be supplanted by new, advanced technology. Can’t we rid ourselves of this tangle of wires that criss-cross our living space as we do, funnily enough, in our own houses? It’s expensive to dig up earth, but it is to dig out plaster in a living room. We manage.

Dream on. Irrationality rules. The pylons are part of our latest panic, fostered by this Government. The planet is about to burn, you see.

I am not a climate sceptic. But I am a solution sceptic. Take renewable energy. Wind farms might, if the wind blows, provide a small percentage of our future electricity requirements. They already wreck a lot of our high landscape, but bigger operations are planned for offshore mud flats and sand bars. This seems a sensible idea, except that they need to be connected to a kettle, of course, or that shop heater blowing warm air into the high street, or those government buildings with the lights on all night, or, yes, the computer on which I am writing. To enable this we need to enlarge the existing grid, which means more pylons.

Many environmentalists, even a former head of Greenpeace, now recognise that the real solution to our crisis is nuclear power. They also recognise that the proper renewable solution lies in local supply, not supergrids. We might add that if a supergrid is required, then there is already a blight-free solution from National Grid; an undersea ring main, running around the coast and up to the main centres of population via river beds. All this is technologically possible.

But instead we have pylons coming to wreck the Mendips, Suffolk and Scotland, where a 2003 DTI report explained that “in order to give confidence to the wind energy sector that transmission capacity would be available for their projects in line with the Government’s targets, detailed preparatory work on Stage 1 2GW reinforcement should begin as soon as possible”. Read that carefully. The real emergency is to boost commercial confidence in this token addition to our electricity demands.

We might expect that, this being a green agenda, its proponents would be sensitive to the desecration, to the huge carbon costs of smelting iron and erecting gantries. But, astoundingly, Friends of the Earth is in favour of new pylons. It wants wind farms so badly. Wind farms offer some sort of vague emotional solace. It needs sacrifice.

The “sacrifice” involved in putting these new cables underground would be about £1 on everybody’s electricity bill over the next 25 years. Isn’t that a good idea, oh, friend of the Earth? Perhaps it might make all of us look at real solutions to our power needs instead of this half-baked, belt-and-braces tinkering.

Over on the Continent they are busy burying cables near Milan, through Spain, across Jutland and under bits of Belgium. Though it’s expensive, they are digging. The cable suppliers estimate the initial costs to be between two and five times more, but they also point out that for maintenance and longevity, this is ameliorated in the long term.

National Grid talks airily of undergrounding as “12 to 17 times more expensive” (based on work carried out in the rocky, inaccessible Highlands, so it seems.) It cannot offer a detailed estimate to the residents of Suffolk, apparently. It is “commercially sensitive information”. And commercial is the key word. National Grid is a private company with more than £600 million profit last year.

Last week a diligent researcher identified the site of one of Constable’s pictures. Today, if Constable were to look around him he would be astonished at how our society is prepared to undo the evolved beauty he cherished. This proposed run in Suffolk is 36km long. Can’t we, as a nation, afford to dig up 36km of that soft Suffolk clay?

To try to avoid having to do such things, the Government recently erected a structure rather more complicated than a pylon called the Infrastructure Planning Commission. This planning-law-busting quango is designed to avoid those bothersome public inquiries. (Why? “Because we are going to burn!”) But I wonder whether this supposedly independent body will have the courage to throw out National Grid’s bogus consultative process. Will the Infrastructure Planning Commission. really accept this bully’s “choice”?

There is an election coming up. Will it be an issue? Well, on behalf of all of us, the people of Suffolk could still make it one. I hope they do.

7 Responses

  1. How about a few key facts from someone who has lived off-grid for 9 years.
    Real solutions. Use less power. Saving a unit of electricity costs far less than generating it.
    Renewables currently viable (apart from “run of river ” hydro schemes) are intermittent , so cannot replace constant baseline generation, such as provided by steam turbine power stations , whether fueled by coal, oil, gas or nuclear.
    So, if you want constant power, you need constant generation.
    Large wind farms are a highly subsidised, expensive way of generating amounts of electricity that could be conserved at much lower cost. And you still need baseline generation running to provide back up. Renewables surcharges that were supposed to be used to develope other renewables are being largely used to subsidise rather than develope new technologies.
    Successive governments have ignored our generation needs since Chernobyl. Now the panic scenario leads to planting wind farms in highly visible, prized landscapes, as window dressing to make believe we are solving the problem.
    The unpalatable truth. We all have to use less electricity and reduce our dependence on the grid by use of microgeneration or carry on consuming at an increasing rate and accept the impact of
    large scale schemes, bulldozered through by the new undemocratic
    government quangos.
    PS. History shows that when electricity usage drops, the generating bodies start to scream about falling revenue, and consequently put their unit prices up. So don’t expect much reduction in cost in the long run.
    Sacrifice our landscapes in the name of efficiency, and we as a nation, will be spiritually poorer.

  2. Thanks for that healthy slice of NIMBYsm Griff, good to see nothing much has changed and self-interest is alive an kicking in rural England. I’d like to know where you got your figures from. No reference for the “£1 over 25 years on everybody’s electricity bill”? It sounds small beer anyway compared with the estimated 60% by which bills are anticipated to rise in the next 10 years according to Crossley, (2009, Joule Centre comment on the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan). So with climate change impacts escalating with global warming, and electricity the most likely medium of sustainable energy (which means the amount demanded per capita will jump as other fossil sourced forms of energy we use are replaced), just where do transmission lines, supergrids and super windfarms come in? I guess the question for this audience would be, could 60 million (soon to be 70 million) people in the UK live off-grid? Taking life-cycle carbon emissions into account, I suspect the answer might be something like this… if we added up all the carbon emitted from setting everyone up to operate off-grid, that’s carbon embodied in making all those PV panels, batteries, inverters, microturbines, etc., running and disposing of them, we would find that for the UK it makes more sense to hook some millions of people (particularly city dwellers) to a grid connected to very large, distant and distributed forms of renewable energy collector. They may also provide a more secure supply due to their diversity and displacement. I don’t know of any studies which have seriously addressed this issue but I’d be happy to read them if they exist. I’m sure though, few people would have the space needed to collect the energy to run a typical household in the UK. Meanwhile, grids and distribution networks will be here to stay and the need to decarbonise our energy supply rapidly, (whilst conserving and increasing the efficiency of using it as well) if the climate science is to be believed – which I do. So rather than a small percentage of our future energy requirements, Britains’ windfarms are destined to offer up to 35GW by 2020 according to the Government’s plans (and therefore those of the National Grid company), whether or not they could be built in time, which is another story. That’s a significant proportion! To do so it will need a lot of rearranging of grid infrastructure – which perhaps conveniently due to its age – is ripe for renewal anyway. So, it looks like pylons are here to stay, especially as we will need more low carbon electricity in future overall. Unfortunately burying HVAC cables decreases their efficiency due to the reactive power in them increasing, but fortunately HVDC does not suffer this, making them more amenable to burying or submersion. However, as most of our appliances require AC, it looks as if we will be requiring the services of overhead HVAC cables for some time to come.

  3. The problem seems to be that we are so used to the idea of big is not just beautiful but big it is the only option. So to use renewables “efficiently” we need more big wind farms and big power cables and even better (!!) big nuclear power plants.

    The flip side to this is actually small is often stunning! Everybody needs to become a lot more energy aware making rational choices on the products and homes they buy. How efficient it is makes no dent in thinking but how much will it save me each month, each year etc does.

    Also the focus needs to stop being so single minded on greening the grid. One of the main reasons the government is so focused on pumping as much wind as it can into the grid is to get it as green as possibe. But the national grid is scarily inefficient and is not the only option. Distributed generation will play an increasingly critical role in the next ten years. TheUK governments new Feed in Tariff, and fingers crossed Renewable Heat Obligation, are a big step in the right direction. DECC have had the guts to admit that it won’t be right first time but hey one small step and all that. But again it is about persuading folks to invest in technologies which mean that they can help to power there own homes, or even better one day they might, just might be able to power their home totally without the need for the grid.

    Distributed generation, mini grids and private wires are all ideas and technologies that will have their day and by then make these super grids look like hugely expensive white elephants.

    It is people we need to empower, to make better choices and realise the options that exist, no repower an aging creaking system that has had its day.

  4. These people who claim to love mother earth, are really just capitalising on a trend. No one who really loved our planet would so easily deface her. I don’t understand why we can’t all have our homes fueled by the methane gas produced by our waste (garbarge and otherwise). Such technology exists and is being used already. I guess the gas, oil and electric companies will fight that off as long as they can to keep their $$$ (and they keep taking more and more from us, don’t they.)

  5. The issue is not as clear cut as presented here. Overhead lines are raised high above the ground to minimize capacitive loses. Power lines closer to ground have higher losses than cable runs mounted on taller pylons.
    Underground or undersea cables must be constructed quite differently.
    Even when you deduct the cost of the pylons add the cost of trenching etc the cost involved will be higher than overhead wires. But short of an earthquake the buried cables are relatively free of damage once they are buried and put into service.
    So the question may be restated will the cost of the necessary increased generating capacity be prohibitive. Adding one pound per person may not be a disaster but all of the costs presented in the arguments by the various commercial interests is suspect since each side wants to present their side as being most favourable. The minute you are talking about a company with investors or owners looking for a profitable return you can bet there is pressure to increase the profit every year.

  6. Perhaps the term NIEBY (Not in everybody’s back yard) should be coined, it seems that in the attempt to mitigate climate change has given big power carte blanche to deface what countryside the UK has left with wind turbines and pylons, dare to speak out and here we go… Get the ducking stool and stake out….. I shudder to think just what energy is lost in transmission, equivalent to more than all the savings made with all energy saving light bulbs currently in use.

    A serious reduction in demand and moves to address rampant population growth are going to prove to be the only means of greenhouse gas reduction, that of course assumes man is causing global warming!

  7. And so a self interested NIMBY speaks out. Wind farm do work very effectively. Presenting yourself as a ‘rationalist’ is not sufficient argument to side yourself with those whose petty self interests come before climate change solutions. Go back to the comedy before this starts to look like satire.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join the global off-grid community

Register for a better experiencE on this site!