A 21st Century Solution for the UK
The Search for a saviour for our beautiful landscape
Where is our Bazilgett?
Joseph William Bazalgett was the Victorian engineer who fought to create the sewerage system that freed London from the scourge of cholera and lead in great part to it looking as civilised it does today. Here in East Anglia we need this magnitude of man or woman. We need someone with the vision to step outside the myopic National Grid pylon consultation options, to think outside the ridiculous, narrow five year planning control of Ofgem that causes a fifty year lifespan investment to be thought about in terms of short term returns. The way these people are thinking about the very real problem of upgrading the national electricity distribution is staggeringly inappropriate. And please let me tell you why.
At this point in the 21st century we are on the brink of a huge change in the way energy is produced, distributed and used. We are on the brink of a change that is as big at the coming of the internet. It will change the sort of car you drive, how and when you use electricity. It will change the way electricity is moved from place to place and it will change the way our country looks. It will make the machines we use talk to one another and use energy more efficiently and responsibly. It will mean that you will probably drive an electric car in 20 years time, and it will probably mean that you will generate some of the electricity you use yourself.
Gushing, fanciful nonsense? We’re afraid not. All of this is is just round the corner for those who embrace it. Look across the atlantic and you see a huge nation rushing to develop just what I have described. Look to China and you see the start of this revolution there. Look to Europe and you see the whole continent moving toward this future, powered by a Europe wide electricity distribution grid. How are they planning to get electricity all round Europe? By using an existing technology called High Voltage Direct Current or HVDC. Do you need to know about this technical stuff; perhaps not but you should know this: it is the grid technology of the future and it’s already here in Britain - after a fashion. You see, HVDC is the way energy from the wind farms comes ashore and it is the method used to connect us in Britain to Europe for electricity import/export purposes.
So what has all this got to do with many of us who hate the idea of National Grid blighting our precious and beautiful countryside with yet more pylons? Well we believe that the only sensible 21st century way to get electrical energy from the north to the south of the British isles, which is what the pylon ridden 400kV grid does now is to have undersea HVDC cables running down the coast taking the power, unseen, linking all of the east coast power generators down and into London. Just imagine, if they did this and ran the power lines up the estuaries and rivers to the population centers and then distributed from there by underground 132kV lines, we could, one day in the foreseeable future, rid our island of ugly pylons altogether. What a dream - but perhaps not.
All dreams have to start somewhere. I would like this one to start with government developing a long term strategy for a 21st century methodology for energy distribution that has a national impact of the magnitude Bazilgett achieved in London over a century ago. I want them to start with linking Sizewell to Bradwell to Rayleigh to Tilbury, in essence to London by undersea HVDC cables to get all the energy that will in future be generated on the east coast to London, where 20% of the nations energy is used. Is this affordable? Well perhaps not if you listen to National Grid who costed a short HVDC link, Sizewell to Bradwell plus a load of ugly overground lines at £1.5+billion. Strange this figure when you read this week's press release about an HVDC link from Britain to Holland (Britned) which is much much longer and is costing only £700million. Do National Grid get poor value for money from their suppliers or is this just part of the effort to sell their ugly 20th century technology patchup? We don't know but we are sure that the investment that is about to be made should be part of Britain rising to the challenge of participating in the development of the coming Europe wide energy distribution grid.
Again you ask, what this has to do with the pylons issue in East Anglia and the answer is simple. This is not a NIMBY argument, not even a "not in my country" (NIMC?) one. What I am talking about is a solution that in the fullness of time completely rids the countryside of the need for pylons - no need for a consultation, no need for controversy between right minded lovers of our countryside as they try to defend their lovely landscape. And better still, this is a road map to a time when the existing pylons can disappear making the Stour Valley and all of the countryside along National Grid's corridor 2 once again the sort of inspiring landscape that was imortalised by Constable and Gainsborough.
Is this the only possible solution? Well, Stour Valley Underground mooted a total underground solution using two parallel 3 metre diameter tunnels with the new power lines and the existing 132kV ones going underground to be joined by the existing 400kV lines when the technology permits. This solution also has the benefit of allowing the cabling cost to be staggered by allowing them to be fitted only in response to real need whereas the National Grid pylon strategy over engineers the cabling to cover all eventualities straight away. Even the use of two tunnels allows one half of the system to be shut down and serviced or repaired without disrupting supply. We were so pleased with this strategy but almost immediately realised that it was far from the best solution. We say this because this is still a huge investment in patching up the tired old no longer fit for purpose dumb grid that National Grid run. If we are to tackle global warming, the future requires something different.
A good few months ago some of us talked to friends about the coming of something called "Smart Grid" They thought we had lost the plot. They told us so. But by now, Smart Grid is on the TV news every week. Type Smart Grid into Google and you will be swamped by web sites on the subject. This is not the place to explain Smart Grid but take it from us that it is the key to a greener, smarter, more cost and energy efficient future. In the USA, President Obama has committed $100's of billions to the implementation of this technology. He sees it as pivotal in ensuring the future success of the American economy. We in Britain fail to embrace it at our peril. Think of it as smart, computer intelligent integration of generator, distributor and user, and as powerful an influence on the way we live as the internet. What we have now and what National Grid want to patch up is 20th century dumb grid technology. Surely we should be moving to pension this off and replacing it with smart investment in the new energy distribution technologies.
So where is our Bazilgett. It is all too clear we need one. The government plainly does not understand this new technology so it seems they haven't found him. They have proved this in recent weeks. The say they want to invest £9 billion in "smart meters" and yet the CEO of National Grid (NG) says the grid is not up to making use of them. Then the government said that they were going to spend £30 million on installing car charging sockets and again out came the CEO of NG to say publicly that the grid would not take it! This is all utter gesturalism. Does this depress us? No, not at all. The technology is spreading like a tidal wave across the energy distribution world. It will definitely come to Britain. The only question is when and how much money will be blown on daft Ofgem controlled strategies that throw our money down the drain because technology will overtake them and will make what they have done redundant in the all too near future.
So to all of those who fight the blight, who protest against pylons, who believe our landscape is a priceless asset that we should hand on to future generations, restored and protected we say this: by all means fight to free your countryside of pylons on a local level. Petition the politicians, write to your councillors and anyone else who might impact the decision that is to be made. But please step back and see the brighter, cleaner, greener future that is on the horizon. The future of bulk electricity distribution is undersea, pylon free - HVDC. We wish you a happy New Year that is brightened by a glimmer of hope that the powers at be will pull the plug on this National Grid "consultation process" and embrace the future, end the current gesturalism and implement a real Smart Grid with HVDC bulk energy distribution.