Ned Hammond is a senior researcher at Onward.
The net zero debate is often dominated by discussions about how we can generate power. What is less discussed is how we move all this new electricity around.
Moving away from gas means even more demand for electricity, from heat pumps to electric vehicles to electric arc furnaces for steel. To cope with the extra demand, the UK needs to double the capacity of its transmission power lines by 2035.
Most of the additional capacity of the transmission network – those very large pylons with high voltage power lines – will be delivered through upgrading existing lines so they can carry more electricity. But we will still need around ten per cent more length in these larger power cables to connect new energy sources to the grid.
Wind turbines must be built where it is windy, which is often offshore; nuclear power stations need to be near large bodies of water; solar farms must be where the sun is sufficiently powerful. The challenge lies in connecting all these sites.
The Government knows what needs to be done, and is creating legislative frameworks to enable this huge energy upgrade. The Energy Bill will establish the Future System Operator, which will allow for more strategic planning in our energy system rather than the current just-in-time approach, which has created a grid connection queue stretching into the 2030s.
But some barriers cannot be overcome with legislation and regulation. Where new grid infrastructure is required, there is often intense local opposition. The problem is particularly severe in East Anglia, where Sizewell C and large offshore wind farms are being built.
Some commentators can be overly harsh on those who campaign against new pylons. Onward’s polling of rural voters, who are most likely to be in the vicinity of new developments, shows that they understand the benefits of decarbonising our energy system. A total of 72 per cent of respondents cited that adding renewables would increase energy security, 65 per cent highlighted cheaper energy, and 60 per cent noted it would result in a healthier environment.
But these positives are shared across the country, whereas the impact of low emission energy developments is felt locally. Some 39 per cent of respondents were concerned about disruption during the construction process, a third felt developments would be unattractive, and 32 per cent suggested they would damage the local environment. Another significant issue that is specific to power lines is that communities currently have a limited say over where they are placed.
Constructing power cables and pylons is also much less popular than building the renewable energy they serve. Our polling found that 31 per cent of rural voters supported new power lines and pylons within three miles of their home, and 30 per cent opposed. While 57 per cent supported local onshore wind farms (which currently face a de-facto ban in England), just 17 per cent opposed.
Local opposition campaigns can be so intense that councillors, MPs, even cabinet ministers, often have no option but to fight tooth and nail against new power lines. When responding to angry constituents in their email inboxes, they have nothing to point to that would demonstrate why local communities should accept new infrastructure.
That is why Onward has recommended the Government should establish a Green Energy Covenant, which would ensure that all communities that face local disruption from new transmission development would be guaranteed fair local investment.
Over three-quarters of respondents to our poll, including 77 per cent of Conservative voters, felt that new renewable energy projects should contribute financially to the local area. Mandating community benefits for new transmission developments could help convert passive support into active backing and reduce the scale and intensity of opposition.
For inspiration, we only need to look across the Irish Sea. In the Republic of Ireland, communities that host grid infrastructure are guaranteed investment. The Green Energy Covenant would recommend default payment rates based on Ireland’s precedent, calculated on a size and length basis: up to £165,000 per mile for overhead lines, £64,000 for underground lines, and £100,000 for substations.
Directness is key to ensure the money is used according to the wishes of the local community. Nearly half of rural voters wanted a board of local elected representatives and community leaders, such as head teachers or business owners, to decide how money is invested. Only 11 per cent wanted funds to be given to the local council.
These boards of local representatives would decide a community action plan to invest the money. It could be spent on energy bill discounts, nature restoration projects, or investment in local services and infrastructure.
Our polling found that energy bill rebates were initially popular. But once respondents were aware of the scale of discount they would receive compared to the size of a community-wide fund, they preferred the latter. The most popular option for investing the community fund was upgrades to make homes more energy efficient. It was a top three choice for 56 per cent of rural voters, followed by health services at 50 per cent and local infrastructure, such as public transport, at 36 per cent.
For new transmission networks, participation is just as significant a hurdle to overcome as investment. At the moment, developers must submit a route design, only to resubmit another after community concerns have been taken into account. This leads to multiple route designs having to be considered. This not only slows down the project, but fails to ensure the community is engaged from the start.
The Government should introduce greater flexibility into the planning process while ensuring more participation. Mitigation options, such as undergrounding cables for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or avoiding wooded areas, should be standardised. Making it clear where communities can choose to change the route design should speed up the planning process for grid infrastructure, while allowing people to have a genuine influence.
By following these steps, local politicians will be able to promise that with unavoidable disruption comes real power and investment.
It is impossible to persuade everyone; there will always be opponents. But a fairer deal for those who have to tolerate new power lines and pylons is the best way to reach net zero and secure Britain’s energy supply.