The UK is racing to upgrade its ailing electric grid so it can bring more renewable energy online to meet its net zero goals – but current plans have sparked a revolt among campaigners, celebrities and even Green Party politicians.
The scale of the task is daunting. The UK is aiming to get 50GW of offshore wind online by 2030, make its electric grid carbon neutral by 2035, and reach net zero nationally by 2050.
To do this, four times as much new transmission network will be needed in the next seven years as was built since 1990.
The UK National Grid is currently carrying out the “Great Grid Upgrade,” which it says is the largest overhaul of the electricity grid in “generations”.
There is broad national consensus this needs to be done, but locally there is tooth-and-nail resistance to the overhead pylons, substations and other infrastructure needed – not to mention the wind and solar farms themselves.
Much of the work is planned in East Anglia, a region that sits between the North Sea – where the bulk of the UK’s 50GW of offshore wind farms will be based – and London, where most of the power is needed. The region will also host a new nuclear power station, Sizewell C, only adding to the infrastructure buildup.
Because of this, East Anglia has become a frontline for clashes over proposed new pylon routes and substations. Campaigners argue current plans will damage the local environment, tourism and, perhaps most painfully, house prices.
They have won powerful friends. Political support all the way up from local councillors and MPs to the UK environment minister, Thérèse Coffey. Even celebrities including Hollywood star Ralph Fiennes and Dame Joanna Lumley have come out to bat in opposition.
This coalition argues in favour of underground and offshore infrastructure. Out of sight, out of mind. The problem is that National Grid and other experts say this would be much more expensive and time-consuming – hurting taxpayers and the UK’s net zero goals.
It was in this fractious context that the UK’s first Electricity Networks Commissioner, Nick Winser, recently issued a report calling for a more coordinated approach to grid upgrades. He is hoping to halve the current average 12-14 year timescales for such projects.
To win local support, he proposes paying lump sums to those affected by new infrastructure, as part of a wider package of community benefits. It remains to be seen whether activists will be willing to be bought off.
Spain’s Iberdrola needs to build substations to bring ashore energy from its £6.5bn ($8.5bn) East Anglia Hub offshore wind mega-project in the North Sea.
But campaigners are doggedly fighting against plans for two of these in the courts. They argue the 14-metre-high structures will dominate the landscape around where they are planned, including a medieval village, with “devastating” local consequences.
Such campaigners are often met with accusations that they’re only upset because they are personally affected – or ‘nimbyism’ – and that they are jeopardising the UK’s net zero goals.
Fiona Gilmore, the founder of Suffolk Energy Action Solutions, a campaign group that has been leading the fight against Iberdrola, highlights the UK government’s recent move toward issuing 100 new North Sea oil and gas concessions, which attracted outcry from green campaigners.
“If the government are not serious about net zero,” she questions why any community should “feel pressure” to sacrifice the local environment to the “horrendous legacy” of the substations.
“Achieving net zero is a complex equation made of many, many factors and initiatives,” including stopping oil and gas production, she says. “No community should feel pressured to roll over if a worse solution is being pushed forwards ahead of a better long-term plan”.
Gilmore claims there has been a lack of transparency by National Grid, which she says refused to present its full plan for the area – leading to local communities feeling “confused, misled and angry at the apparent subterfuge.”
'Painted into a corner'
“If communities like ours are basically being asked to take one for team UK,” then the government needs to make this clear, says Green Party councillor Andrew Mellen.
National Grid wants to build a 180km line of pylons through the area managed by Mid Suffolk District Council, which he leads, to transport energy generated by North Sea wind farms down to London.
“We’ve been slightly painted into a corner,” he says, where the proposed plan is now the “only option that will now work because of previous decisions that have been made.”
The urgent need to upgrade the grid points to past failures in long-term planning, he says. “Suddenly it appears we have to scurry around and play a very expensive catch-up.”
Kay Mason Billig, the Conservative Party leader of the nearby Norfolk County Council, echoes his comments. She says that although her constituency suffers from a lack of power infrastructure, “it seems to be just a case of ‘through us, not to us’ at the moment.”
And even if it was acceptable to locals, Billig says that cash payments, as proposed by Winser, are a “very short-term solution."
“What about the people who come after those who have received the compensation? They will still have to live with this blight on our landscape.”
'Net zero a national endeavour'
Carl Trowell, president of UK strategic infrastructure at National Grid, tells Recharge that the company carefully considers the impact of its projects and consults “extensively” with local communities.
“We have a responsibility to develop proposals which are efficient, economical and represent value for money to consumers across Britain,” he says, while also considering the “impact of our infrastructure.”
Reaching net zero is a “national endeavour,” he says, but stressed that “communities hosting critical new net zero infrastructure must also feel the tangible benefits that such infrastructure can bring.”
Many of those opposed to current plans claim that the UK is lagging behind other European countries such as Denmark, Germany and Belgium by not building more of this infrastructure offshore.
They cite a 2020 report that a coordinated offshore approach could save the UK billions of pounds in the long run. But National Grid says that, for the specific projects at hand, offshore works will be far more expensive and time-consuming.
Antonella Battaglini, CEO of German non-profit Renewables Grid Initiative, which promotes sustainable grid development across Europe, agrees with other experts in saying that offshore infrastructure is generally both more expensive and “technically more complex to realise.”
Building it is also “hugely impacted by weather conditions,” meaning work can take much longer.
“Even if we move offshore,” she says we still need a “massive build-up” of onshore infrastructure to transport power to cities and other consumption centres.
“People should start to understand that, whatever the pathway, this is going to be the case.”