Underground Movement

The public reaction to new power lines could kill renewable energy: they must be buried.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 31st May 2011

Why do those who oppose wind power insist on spoiling their case with gibberish? In his column on Friday, Simon Jenkins claimed that onshore wind farms were being planned “with no concern for cost.”(1) But the only reason for building them is a concern for cost. If it weren’t for this issue, they would be the last option governments would choose – God knows they cause enough trouble.

As the government’s Committee on Climate Change reports, large onshore wind farms are “already close to competitive” with burning natural gas, and are likely to get there by 2020(2). They are the cheapest renewable sources in this country by a long way. Offshore wind costs roughly twice as much, and its costs have been escalating. After attacking the high cost of wind power, Simon argued that we should instead invest in “sun and waves”. The committee shows that while the expected price of electricity from onshore wind in 2030 is between 7 and 8.5 pence per kilowatt hour, solar power is expected to come in at between 11 and 25 pence, and wave between 15 and 31(3). Talk about no concern for cost!

Incidentally, the cheapest low carbon option, the committee says, is nuclear power, at 5-10p(4,5). But, because of public objections, new plants are likely to be confined to existing sites, which means a maximum of about 20 gigawatts (a quarter of our current power capacity). Planning objections also restrict the spread of onshore wind. The only viable means of getting carbon off the grid, the committee suggests, is a mixture of sources: renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage.

But those who oppose wind power can’t help themselves. In parliament earlier this month, Glyn Davies, the MP who is leading the fight against wind farms in mid-Wales, insisted that “Welsh wind farms have a load factor of just 19% – the lowest ever recorded” and that “the carbon impact of the development can never be compensated for by any possible carbon benefit.”(6) Rubbish again. The capacity factor for Welsh wind (the amount the turbines produce as a proportion of their idealised output) is 26%(7). Professor Gareth Harrison of Edinburgh University estimates that the carbon payback time for the wind developments in mid-Wales will be roughly 12 months(8). Davies, like Jenkins, also claimed that “so much more” could have been done with the same money had it been spent on wave and tidal power, offshore wind and solar photovoltaics. Should MPs not be obliged to do some research before they open their mouths in parliament?

Anti-wind campaigners are also highly selective. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, obsessed by wind farms, says nothing about the opencast coal mines ripping south Wales apart. Nor do you hear a word about the destruction of the ecosystems of upland Wales (and England and Scotland) by sheep grazing. These champions of the countryside want to save it from only one threat.

For all that, it’s a real one. While the wind farms themselves divide communities, everyone hates the new power lines required to connect them to the grid. Here in mid-Wales, I have yet to meet anyone who will speak up in favour of them. Because they have to march across so much countryside, their visual impact is greater per pound of investment than that of any other technology.

Though you could see this issue coming as clearly as the pylons themselves, the green movement is completely unprepared. Greenpeace tells me “we haven’t done any work on pylons”(9). Hardly anyone seems to be aware of how perilous this situation is: how easily renewable energy could be killed by the power lines issue.

This is about to become a national struggle, in which opponents of the new pylons will be cast as heroes. Promising direct action, reminding us of the great battles against the reservoirs supplying England, those who marched against the new lines in Wales last week will put us, unless we act quickly, in a dangerous position(10). Green activists will be outflanked by green activism. The same battle will then be fought all over the United Kingdom, wherever a new power line is planned.

Many of the areas affected by proposals for new lines are either Tory constituencies or LibDem seats the Tories will hope to take (all of which are now contestable)(11,12). It is hard to believe that the Conservative commitment to low-carbon energy could withstand a major rebellion within the party: Tory environmentalism is easily uprooted.

The greens need to decide where they stand. The only position that makes sense to me is unequivocally to support the campaign against overhead lines. Where new powerlines are built they must go underground*. If they can’t go underground, they shouldn’t be built. If we are not against pylons marching over stunning countryside, what are we for?

But here too there’s a problem. Like the wind farms, overhead lines are favoured by the government because of its concern for cost. According to the National Grid, burying the lines connecting the turbines in mid-Wales to the rest of the system would cost 3.2 times as much as putting them on pylons (£562m vs £178m)(13). But how much does that add to the cost of electricity?

Calculating this is easy(14) – as long as you know the capital costs of the whole project. But neither the National Grid nor anyone else I’ve spoken to is prepared to hazard a guess about the cost of the rest of the infrastructure, so I can’t yet tell you whether burying the power lines makes onshore wind here more expensive than competing technologies.

In fact my efforts to obtain relevant data of all kinds from the government, the National Grid and the wind industry reveal that, like the environment movement, they are completely unprepared for this backlash. Dismayed by the collective failure to address the pylons issue, the campaign against wind farms now confidently tells the same story about this technology as others do about nuclear: the turbines are erected by big, greedy corporations; they are unfairly subsidised by the government; they will cause untold damage to human health. In view of the flack you get for supporting any power technology, I’m beginning to think it would be less controversial to argue in favour of blackouts.

So this is where the UK stands. We can’t keep burning fossil fuels without cooking the biosphere. We don’t like nuclear power. We don’t like onshore wind. We won’t like the costs of the other technologies. We reject all the means by which electricity is generated. Yet no one’s volunteering to stop using it.


* The National Grid’s Undergrounding Consultation is live here:
if you wish to comment.


1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/26/bravo-for-the-nimbys-wind-power

2. Committee on Climate Change, May 2011. The Renewable Energy Review. http://www.theccc.org.uk/reports/renewable-energy-review

3. As above, Figure 1.

4. As above, Figure 1.

5. See also Figure 1.9.

6. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm110510/halltext/110510h0001.htm

7. http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/statistics/publications/trends/articles_issue/file43950.pdf

8. By email. Here’s what he says:

“I’ve used previous work on the materials, construction and operation of transmission/distribution network infrastructure and wind farms to estimate the carbon impact of 150 km of transmission/distribution lines and 800 MW of wind turbines. Using conservative estimates (generator capacity factor of 0.25, displacement of gas generation etc.) the time required to pay back the carbon in the man-made infrastructure is 6 months (which is entirely in line with my initial guess).

“A difficulty arises as some but not all of the farms have peat deposits within their boundaries and disturbing it creates additional CO2 equivalent emissions. One of the larger farms at Nant-y-Moch has peat within its boundaries and SSE Renewables estimate paybacks to be 19-41 months assuming the very worst case where they do not manage the peat properly. A quick look at a rather grainy soils map suggests that this will not apply to all farms. For the cluster as a whole I would suggest the effect of peat would be to double the overall carbon payback time to 12 months. To improve on this will need a detailed look at all of the peat estimates for all of the wind farms.”

9. Niall Sookoo, 26th May 2011. By email.

10. See http://www.montgomeryshireagainstpylons.org/

11. Some of them are listed here: http://www.nationalgrid.com/uk/Electricity/MajorProjects/

12. See also the map on page 110 of the CCC report: http://www.theccc.org.uk/reports/renewable-energy-review

13. http://www.nationalgrid.com/NR/rdonlyres/18E52B43-8AB5-4F0B-95F7-0BECCA0647BE/46002/MidWalesSORIssue1_110319.pdf

14. Because there are now fuel costs involved, this calculation is much easier than it is for thermal plant. Professor Goran Strbac of Imperial College tells me that you get the rough cost by kilowatt hour by dividing the total capital cost by 10 to get the annuitised cost, then dividing that by the anticipated output (in kWh) from the wind developments to get the cost per unit.