The Story So Far...
The Pylon Saga
This 2300 word outline covers the period from National Grid's original proposal for the
Bramford to Twinstead connection and the establishment of Stour Valley Underground
in September 2009 up till the close of 2013.
In late 2009, National Grid, our national electricity transmission system operator announced its proposals to build a new line of pylons from Bramford near Ipswich to Twinstead in Essex. They called the project the Bramford to Twinstead Overhead Line Project. The project would be the subject of a large and complex public consultation process.
National Grid predicated the need case for this project on legally binding connection agreements between them and the developers of proposed new low carbon generators in or beside the North Sea around East Anglia. The truth however was more subtle. There was a long standing design flaw in the East Anglian part of the national electricity transmission grid caused by a bottle neck between Bramford and Twinstead. This flaw could lead to instability in the system and despite the actual dates when new plant would start producing electricity being delayed significantly, National Grid appeared to feel it needed the new connection by 2016-17. Thus the need for the connection is not contingent on projects such as the new nuclear Sizewell C plans or the vast East Anglia One wind farm.
National Grid put forward 4 route corridors for public consideration, two through beautiful unspoiled countryside and two down the route of existing pylons. These last two routes ran past the Grade 1 listed Hintlesham Hall, through the landscapes that inspired notable 20th century artists of the East Anglian School of Painting, through the protected Dedham Vale, inspiration for John Constable's 18th century landscape masterpieces, through the Stour Valley, inspiration for Thomas Gainsborough's landscape paintings, and on to the Twinstead Tee near rural Henny, Essex.
Most people rightly felt that to blight unspoiled landscapes of the other more northerly routes with pylons was completely unacceptable and that if new pylons were indeed needed, they should go where there were pylons already. National Grid and the involved communities preferred corridor choice was therefore this corridor: "Corridor 2".
Stour Valley Underground had been established to address National Grid’s proposals in September 2009 by the parish councils on the Essex side of the Corridor routes and having carefully considered the options, Corridor 2 was clear in its preference. The connection should indeed be in corridor 2 - under it, hence the organisation's name. SVU as it became known forged links with other amenity groups involved with this issue who embarked on a collective and very engaged, research lead approach to responding to National Grid's proposals.
Campaigners within what became known as the Suffolk and Essex Amenity Group Coalition brought innovative thinking and solutions to the consultation including costing the environmental impact of a pylon, public willingness to pay for preferable solutions and better technological solutions. Members of the campaign groups have also contributed to numerous related consultations on government policy and regulation. It is clear that they have impacted the the national discourse on how the grid is redeveloped for renewable energy future and as such, the campaigners are a positive force.
This coalition together with community representatives and local government came forward with alternative proposals including undersea, coastal ones that avoided blighting valuable landscape. These however were disregarded by National Grid on cost grounds. It should be noted that undersea connections like that proposed have been implemented at other locations around the country. However, in light of National Grid's position, For the campaigners and local government, the Bramford to Twinstead project therefore became an issue of how to minimise the impact of a new connection within the landscape.
Campaigners then made the case for an underground connection which was again deemed too costly by National Grid though after rigorous examination they had to agree that the cost differential across the lifetime of the connection was more like 3 times as much for underground and not 20 times as they had originally maintained.
By 2011, local government was making a significant mark on the consultation process and having supported the undersea solution, Suffolk County Council organised the National Symposium on Future Energy Networks in the shadow of Parliament in London. The DECC and Ofgem's attention was drawn to the fact that better solutions were available and indeed demanded by communities threatened by similar proposals from National Grid to those we were dealing with.
It became clear that the project was likely to involve a hybrid solution, mixing some underground cabling and some overhead lines on pylons. Understandably, the project was renamed the Bramford to Twinstead Connection Project. This in part was because by 2011, the campaign groups had developed a well supported case for underground cabling every section of the route supported by cultural heritage, environmental and socio-economic argument.
The identification of nationally significant cultural heritage and environmental assets that were threatened by National Grid's proposals impacted their thinking about the justification for underground cabling to preserve the amenity value of valuable landscape.
A consequence of selecting Corridor 2 was that National Grid would remove a line of shorter pylons and replace it with taller ones. National Grid clearly believed that proposing 3 lines of pylons through these valleys would not gain planning consent. The shorter pylons formed part of the local distribution grid and their function would need to be replaced. National Grid proposed building a new substation in north Essex as the solution.
In May 2012, National Grid announced that as a result of consultation, they would underground around 1/4 of the route. This involved undergrounding the section of the route that lies within the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). They also proposed to underground the section of the route through the Stour Valley, an area that is the site and setting of some of Thomas Gainsborough's landscape masterpieces. This area is also under active consideration by Natural England for inclusion in an extended AONB that would take in both the Gainsborough and Constable landscapes.
Stour Valley Underground welcomed National Grid's decision to underground the sections including the Stour Valley whilst still making the sound case for a totally underground connection. The group also made the case for a different routing to that proposed by National Grid. SVU's proposal took the end of the route away from a unique environmental asset and shifted it to a preferable location that permitted the reinstatement of a County Wildlife designated woodland. This option also allowed a high amenity value tributary valley to be cleared of 3 highly detrimental pylons.
In mid 2012, National Grid agreed to take SVU's proposals for the rerouting of the underground cables forward.
Stour Valley Underground recognised that perhaps the greatest hurdle was still to come and the proposal from National Grid to site a substation near Twinstead had to be fought if the gateway to the culturally significant landscapes south of Sudbury was to be preserved, un-indistrialised.
The need for the capabilities of a substation was consequent of National Grid's proposal to remove a distribution line as part of their Corridor 2 solution. Stour Valley Underground however had been researching the alternatives to this for over a year and had published its preferred solution which was to place the substation equipment at the existing Braintree substation and then connect this to the distribution network via underground cables. This was the only solution that actually delivered amenity benefits, not just detriment.
This solution was presented complete with research evidence on cable trenching, routing and the availability of the requisite land at the existing substation site. As with every Stour Valley Underground proposal, it was fully checked for deliverability, technical compliance, socio-economic justification and its environmental impacts and benefits. This solution received unanimous support of all levels of local government and the constituency MP.
In late August 2013, National Grid announced their preferred location for a new substation at location C2 which lies beside the A131 between Twinstead and Wickham St Paul.
National Grid held substation public consultation events in March 2013, putting forward 3 potential substation sites but not covering the Braintree option in as much detail or with a similar level of display material. They did however cover the Castle Heddingham site option. National Grid also fed costing data for the various substation options available that was produced by UK Power Networks into the consultation. These figures proved to be misleading or exaggerated to an extent that rendered them too unsafe to base a decision on.
By the time of the substation consultation events, National Grid already knew ( back in Sept 2012) that the Castle Heddingham option was not viable due to transport constraints. Residents of the largest community involved were alarmed into expressing a preference for a site away from their historic village when in reality, their village was not under any real threat. The result was a deeply flawed consultation after which National Grid selected the option their representatives said they would back in 2011.
The decision National Grid came forward with was completely at odds the preferred option indicated by all levels of local government and the communities. The consultation had made no difference to National Grid's plans.
However, the Braintree solution would deliver significant socio-economic benefits and could lead to the removal of a further 30 pylons. The communities did not consider the matter settled. The Braintree solution would cost more but that additional expenditure was entirely justified in tthe interest of the future of the wider economy of the area affected.
In September 2013, community representatives met with National Grid and in discussion, National Grid agreed that if the capital cost premium for the Braintree option were not an issue, they would support the Braintree solution. National Grid are aware that in choosing their preferred substation option, they risk the whole Bramford - Twinstead project proposal being rejected by the Planning Inspectorate.
Community representatives realising that the energy regulator holds the key to resolving this issue, and with the support of local MP Brooks Newmark, begun the process of making the case to energy regulator Ofgem for the funding of the socio-economically justifiable option of locating the substation equipment at Braintree. Sadly by the end of the year, we were aware that Ofgem are no longer even consultees on this project and are leaving the decision on whether National Grid’s proposals are acceptable to the Planning Inspectorate.
In a wholly unexpected development on Thursday 14th November 2013, National Grid announced that they were shelving the Bramford to Twinstead Connection Project
due to changes and delays to the connection dates for new generators around East Anglia, They now say that instead of needing the connection around 2017, they will not not need it until the early 2020‘s. This suggests that the project has been put back around 5 years. Accordingly, the proposal for a new substation in north Essex has also been shelved so we all breathed a sigh of relief. But this is not victory: this is a stay of execution.
National Grid say that the need for the Bramford to Twinstead Connection Project still exists and that they will pick up the consultation process such that they deliver the connection only when it is needed. This they plan to do after a round of update meetings to bring everyone back up to speed. They will then proceed straight into the formal consultation stage which will be hugely demanding for all involved. National Grid say that they will stick with the connection as currently proposed with its two underground sections and a substation in the north Essex countryside.
At the time of writing, Christmas 2013, the most clear and apparent fact that we as campaigners must address is that it is flawed National Policy and massive uncertainty around the future electricity generation landscape that has lead to the current situation. National Grid now say that they have a new and more flexible approach to developing the need case for grid reinforcement proposals. This approach means that they no longer stick rigidly to basing their proposals and timings on when generator developers say they will need connecting to the grid. That is a step forward but also brings uncertainty.
There is also another problem in the way they think about the need that their proposals are supposed to address. SVU quizzed National Grid on this point at a recent meeting to find that they still consider only proposed new generator connection requests and the flexibility seems to relate to when they will really need to connect which is typically later than the developers say. So National Grid are finally taking the 2020 date for Sizewell C with a huge pinch of salt, recognising as we always have, that such a date is impossible.
What they are not considering is the impact of Shale Gas on the location of major generation and the possibility of driving existing coal powered generators with cheaper, UK extracted natural (shale) gas. They also are not considering the prospect of huge amounts of renewable power from our west, from Ireland.
Significantly, National Grid are with Ofgem’s blessing researching building a coordinated undersea grid in the North Sea to connect the windfarms. This multi £billion scheme is in line with our 2010 UK Ringmain proposals and according to energy engineering giant Siemens, could reduce the capacity needed in the on-land grid.
Any or all of the above could substantially affect the need case, increasing or decreasing the transmission capacity requirement between Bramford and Twinstead.
And so as 2014 dawns, the Bramford to Twinstead Connection Project is shelved and presents a delayed threat to our landscape. There is now more uncertainty than at any time during the consultation process as to what shape and size the future national electricity grid will need to be. In such circumstances, we all need this breather while the real need becomes clearer in order that the landscape is not despoiled needlessly. This time is also there to enable us all to press government for the right National Policies to deliver the right grid development solutions for us all.
Going forward, Stour Valley Underground will continue to pursue a course based on a simple premise:- We as a society must determine what any given landscape area can best deliver for society in an environmentally responsible manner. The Stour Valley and indeed the whole of the countryside in what National Grid call Corridor 2 contains significantly valuable landscapes who's destiny is to deliver socio-economic and other benefit to society based on its natural beauty and cultural heritage assets. It should not therefore have these assets compromised by industrialisation.
The energy infrastructure that is needed to decarbonise our national energy system can be accommodated beneath such valuable landscapes or located elsewhere on land that does not have such inherent assets, assets that are a resource for the valuable leisure and tourism industries. Such assets must be protected and responsibly exploited in wider society's best interests.
And as we proposed back in 2010, landscape blighting by pylons can be drastically reduced because much of the redeveloped grid could be located sub-sea, out of sight, near the low carbon generators of the future. This is true right across all of the nations of the British Isles. Thus we will continue to make the case for this and for our integration into the coming European Supergrid.