One of the ironies of UK renewables generation – designed to be so environmentally friendly – is the requirement to add substantially to the 22,000 pylons currently in operation.
Many wind plants are located in remote coastal areas, where new transmission infrastructure is needed to connect their output to the grid.
Hence, National Grid is now planning a major extension of its network to accommodate both new renewables generation as well as preparing, perhaps optimistically, for new nuclear plants. Indeed, this investment will be the largest since the 1960s, when the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) undertook a massive nationwide electrification programme.
To help finance its UK investment uplift, National Grid – with net debt of over £22 billion – has just raised c£3 billion through a well-supported rights issue.
Environmentalists will be very concerned about some of the sites in the West Country and East Anglia where new pylons may be erected. They include not only the picturesque Mendip Hills in Somerset but also Dedham Vale in Suffolk – John Constable’s one-time stomping ground and therefore the cradle of English landscape painting.
Of course, blots on the landscape – in the form of pylons – can be avoided by extensive undergrounding; but there is a heavy cost.
National Grid estimates that it costs £1.6 million per mile to erect pylons and wires. The comparable costs for undergrounding and tunnelling are over 12x as much – at over £20 million per mile.
In fact, current transmission costs account for below 5% of a domestic consumer’s bill, which is highly sensitive to generation costs. Clearly, if there were widespread undergrounding of transmission lines, this percentage would rise.
Hence, rural Britain – already unhappy with wind turbines – could face further intrusions with additional pylons.
Should consumers pay higher electricity prices to prevent further blots on picturesque rural landscapes?