Monday 24 March 2014

Poles and trenches

An issue much troubling many people in this part of the world at the moment is the proposal for an overhead line to connect the Brechfa wind farms to the National Grid.  The final line is yet to be identified, but some broad corridors have been painted on maps as a basis for consultation.
As owners of land (to wit, a house and garden) which sits squarely in the centre of one of these corridors, we were invited to a session organised by Western Power Distribution recently for them to explain the proposals.  Whilst it was helpful to see the lines on a larger scale map, there really wasn’t a lot to be said.
To be honest I’m not particularly exercised either way about the prospect of a few extra telegraph poles with wires strung between them crossing the field in front of the house, and I don’t really understand the demand from some quarters for the entire route to be placed underground.  It would be visually better of course, and perhaps in some sections of the route which are particularly sensitive scenically it’s worth doing that.  But the disruption of digging a deep trench through the area is not to be lightly dismissed either.
Some of the opposition seems to be more about fighting yesterday’s battles rather than about the line itself; a sort of rear-guard action against the wind farms.  Making it impossible to connect them to the grid would certainly undermine the rationale for building them, but it’s a false hope and a misplaced campaign.
Some of the political opposition is less than honest as well; politicians who claim to be in favour of renewable energy and against fuel poverty doing their best to block renewable energy projects and increase the cost of the energy from those which are approved.
And there’s no small dishonesty either in the claims being made by some that putting the cables underground would cost no more than putting them overhead.  I don’t know who’s doing their sums or where they get their figures.  Western Power Distribution claim that the costs are £150,000 per kilometre for an overhead line and £986,000 per kilometre for an underground cable - six times as much.  It’s possible – of course – that they’ve exaggerated the difference a little, but the difference doesn’t go away just by asserting that it doesn’t exist.  And it isn’t just the installation cost which is different; digging up cables for repairs and renewal costs more than patching any overhead line.
Would I prefer that overhead lines never intruded on the view, anywhere?  Yes, naturally.  I want a nice clear view with no poles and wires.  But I also want affordable electricity when I need it, and I want it from renewable sources.  We can’t always have everything we want.


Anonymous said...

One obvious need for a trench is in winter, when the weight of ice on the overhead wires is so great that the line breaks, brining into operation the transfer of workers from Scotland (currently part of UK) to do the repair work, and the inconvience to households and business without power.

Anonymous said...

I want a prosperous Wales with no poor people and a good health service. But I also want my children to have a good education system and I want their qualifications to be internationally recognised. We can't always have everything we want.

Why not?

John Dixon said...

Anon 1,

The extent to which that justifies the huge amount of extra cost surely depends on frequency of occurrence and potential impact? thee are a lot of issues involved in making such judgements, but it is likely that the impact of a line break from a single point of generation into the grid will actually be less that the impact of a broken line closer to the point of consumption.

Anon 2,

The word 'always' has a certain significance here, particularly when there is an inherent contradiction between two or more options. This list of things that you quote have no inherent contradictions, but the example that I was referring to does - specifically, keeping the price of electricity low whilst choosing the most expensive way of carrying it from one place to another.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply.

I thought we'd agree last week that 'less is more'.

Why bother carrying so much electricity from one place to another. Either carry less, produce more elsewhere or have a requirement for less.

Same old thinking always leads to the same old problems. You need to get out a bit more!

John Dixon said...


I don't think we actually agreed any such thing...

Of course, if we didn't need to carry electricity from point a to point b, we wouldn't need overhead cables. But then, neither would we need trenches... And we certainly wouldn't want to pay six times as much for something we didn't need.

Using less electricity would be good, but short of using no electricity, we'd still need to produce it somewhere. And even if I got out a lot more, I somehow don't think we'd get away from the need to carry electricity from point of generation to point of use.

Anonymous said...

By all means generate electricity. Generate as much as you want. Just make sure the generation is in the places where the electricity is needed.

Someone has told you that we need to generate in point a and supply point b, point b being some distance away from point a. You should have asked why. And then you should have asked again. And each time you ask you'll find that you'll get closer to the answer ......

Things only improve when people start to ask questions. Recent examples, the heath service, education, pot hole repairs and so on.

Start asking questions. And keep asking them!

John Dixon said...

Of course it is possible to generate electricity much closer to the point of use, but short of each point of use having its own generation capability, the points of use still need to connect to the points of generation. And the more diffuse the generation capacity, the less resilience in the system, unless you include a network (which we might choose to call a 'grid'). And if we want to us renewables, then the generation capacity has to be where the energy source is. That's true for wind, but even more obviously true for tidal power. There are some promising new technologies around coatings on roofs, walls, and windows, but we're a long way off being able to deploy them (including retro-fitting) on a scale which turns every building into a generator - and even then, you don't eliminate the resilience issue.

Ask all the questions you like, but if you know of a way of continuing to provide a resilient electricity supply, generating it from clean renewable sources, and not having to transport it from point of generation to point of use, then I'd like to hear it.

Anonymous said...

Okay, firstly, let's start with reducing the need for 'so much' supply.

In countries like Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Japan the office lights go off at night. But not just the lights, all non-essential stand-by items such as computers, phones and so on.

Let's start by asking why this isn't done here. Do we need to 'artificially' increase the price of electricity at night just to change our intractable way of thinking? Or are there really good reasons why we cannot follow suite?

Surely you must have asked this question before. What is the answer? And is the answer truly plausible?

John Dixon said...

Without needing to get into such specific proposals as turning off lights and equipment, I'll just say that I agree completely that there are a lot of things that we can do to reduce the demand for electricity, and demand reduction ought to be a key plank in any energy policy.

However, another key plank is that whatever energy we do use should be as 'green' as we can make it. That means, in effect, replacing fossil fuels with renewables (again, we could argue about the detail of which renewables and how much of each, but in this context, that's "just" detail). One of the effects of switching from fossil fuels to renewables is that the proportion of energy at the point of use which is represented by electricity (either directly or through a conversion technology such as fuel cells) actually increases.

So, even if there is a great deal that we can do to reduce total energy consumption, the requirement for energy in the form of electricity will still increase overall, as it replaces other fuels in fields such as transport.

G Horton-Jones said...

John and Anon

Take a look at green hydrogen

Pete said...

Whenever there is a debate about energy production and the need for more, or less, electricity, no one seems to mention the Elephant in the closet. Without electricity Nuclear power plants would go into meltdown. We are caught in a trap of our own making, we have to produce more electricity to keep the power plants that produce electricity stable.
That is a use of power that is not going anywhere.