All you need to know about... pylons
Miles of new pylons are planned for the countryside but are they a blot on the landscape or do they play a part in a more sustainable future? By Kate Langrish
Why are they in the news?
Plans have been announced for hundreds of miles of new cables and electricity pylons across Britain, some of which will be sited in our most beautiful landscapes in National Parks, including Snowdonia and the Cairngorms, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), such as the Stour Valley and the Mendip Hills.
Who's against it?
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has joined forces with the Campaign for National Parks, Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales and the National Association for AONBs to call for new power lines to avoid National Parks and AONBs, and for the most obtrusive existing pylons to be removed from protected landscapes. In Scotland, a new line of 600 pylons running from the Highlands to central Scotland led to more than 18,000 objections, but plans have now been approved by the Scottish government.
What's the problem?
Campaigners claim the sight of pylons marching across wild and beautiful areas not only spoils scenery, but could also affect tourism. The 137-mile Beauly-Denny line in Scotland, for example, will interrupt views from Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument.
Why do we need more?
Over the next five to ten years, several existing nuclear and coal-powered stations will be replaced with low-carbon wind farms and new nuclear generators, for example at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Many of the wind farms are in remote areas or off-shore, and these need to be connected to the system. The National Grid, which is responsible for the 22,000 pylon high-voltage transmission network in England and Wales, says it always looks to upgrade existing lines where possible, but new connections need to be built to incorporate the latest, often greener, generators.
What do the rules say?
The criteria, known as the Holford Rules, state that new lines should avoid altogether if possible areas of high amenity value', such as National Parks and AONBs. The National Grid says this isn't always practical, so it keeps to other Holford Rules, which mean lines are routed through open valleys with hill and tree backgrounds, as these make pylons less obvious than sky backgrounds.
Is there an alternative?
Yes, power lines can be routed underground, or offshore. However, the National Grid estimates underground cabling costs around 12 to 17 times more - up to £25m per kilometre compared to £1.5m per kilometre. And it would be us, the bill payers, who would pick up this extra cost. Underground cables come with their own environmental implications - the National Grid says it takes a 55m-wide construction zone to lay cables. However, some progress is being made on lower voltage lines, which are owned by electricity companies and are less costly to put underground - according to CPRE, Manweb and SSE Southern Electric, for example, have actively pursued undergrounding, such as mole-tunnelling' near the Avebury stone circle, but it says more still needs to be done by other companies.
What else could be done?
Electricity companies want to use smart grids', which are a way of managing electricity so that peaks and troughs in demand are smoothed out and generators aren't required to work at such great capacities. Smart meters' for homes work in a similar way and in future could be linked up to smart appliances'. A smart meter would talk' to the grid and tell your fridge to run at times when there is low demand for power, such as overnight. This would save energy and enable more use of stop-start renewable power such as wind and solar.
Country Living's verdict
It is largely our commitment to renewable energy that necessitates the building of these new pylon routes and some impact on the countryside is inevitable. However, our most protected landscapes should not be blighted by pylons - underground cabling is a worthwhile, albeit expensive option for these areas. Smart grids offer a way to reduce overall energy consumption, but it's also down to each of us to make our own homes more energy-efficient.