The UK’s quest to degas the energy sector faces a major test within weeks when a minister decides whether two wind farms along a quiet area of England’s east coast should continue despite strong opposition from locals over the onshore elements of the projects.
ScottishPower’s planning application for the two projects off the coast of Suffolk includes permission for cables and two eight-acre substation complexes to be built on land.
The projects will be the latest test of rural communities’ tolerance for housing the infrastructure needed to connect the series of clean energy projects planned for the North Sea to the electricity grid.
In February, villagers in the neighboring county of Norfolk managed to turn around approval for another large offshore wind farm proposed by Swedish company Vattenfall, after concerns about the visual impact of an onshore substation.
The government has set a target to quadruple the UK’s offshore wind capacity to 40GW by the end of the decade as part of its goal of degassing Britain’s electricity system by 2035.
But Suffolk residents have identified at least eight proposed energy projects that they claim could “irreversibly damage” the country’s coastal areas unless the onshore infrastructure to connect them to the electricity grid is coordinated and reduced. In addition to new offshore wind projects, National Grid plans to install several new submarine cables that trade electricity with mainland Europe.
Energy companies and environmental campaigners privately acknowledge that if not handled carefully, local opposition in the east of England could lead to “Onshore wind 2.0”. Former Prime Minister David Cameron prohibited subsidies for the development of onshore wind farms in 2016 under intense pressure from conservative backbench MPs.
This time the opponents include a cabinet minister, Thérèse Coffey, the local MP and working and pension secretary, who supported the campaign for alternative sites for the substations.
Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said: “The onshore wind industry has caused itself trouble by hoping to track down local permits. Lessons need to be learned from that debacle – the onshore parts of future offshore wind developments need to be justified to prevent fighting in nearby communities. ”
Residents of Suffolk argue the onshore infrastructure needed for the two ScottishPower schemes will ‘place a scar of highway size through the fragile cliffs of Thorpeness and the county’s historic coastal towns. They will also need a large substation complex in the medieval Suffolk town of Friston.
The two projects – East Anglia One North (EA1N) and East Anglia Two (EA2) – require a development consent order from Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng by 6 January.
The plans also put the ruling Conservative party at odds with some of its traditional supporters in the hitherto extremely loyal Suffolk Coastal constituency.
Fiona Gilmore, who heads the local campaign group Suffolk Energy Action Solutions, stressed that it is not opposed to the wind farms, but believes that it is possible to connect projects and their electricity to a single onshore pivot. to perform on a brownfield site.
According to her, “local communities are subject to the indifferent and callous treatment of developers who use this countryside as a dumping ground for their green gold, their wind energy”.
Alexander Gimson is chairman of the Wardens Trust, a charity that provides recreational facilities for people with disabilities along the area’s cliffs.
According to ScottishPower’s plans, the construction of a cable that would take place 100 meters from the charity’s headquarters would take three years. Gimson argued its proximity and the disruption threatened the trust’s future.
Gimson said his mother, who owns the charity and its land, was initially offered more than £ 50,000 by ScottishPower to allow it to carry out works such as moving fences and stables. The amount included an “incentive payment” for signing a contract.
A letter sent to Gimson’s mother by lawyers acting on behalf of ScottishPower said that by accepting the payments, Gimson would not be able to “make representations” about the development consent orders for the two projects. He believes it will be similar to a “cord order”.
Scottish Power said: “We refute the claims made regarding our approach to land agreements in the strongest possible terms, including any proposal we seek to undermine the planning process. These allegations are misleading and false. ”
It was said that no such agreements were entered into. “All our agreements have been prepared in accordance with the highest industry standards.”
Residents of Suffolk said they would be less upset if the country benefited from a boom in foreign wind farms, but feared it would only get “crumbs off the table”, with a limited number of operations and maintenance roles. This contrasts with Teesside and Hull, who have attracted investment of companies including General Electric and Siemens Gamesa for offshore wind manufacturing facilities.
“If someone told me this is what East Suffolk is going to get, I might be a little less opposed to the onshore part of these projects,” says Michael Mahony, who lives outside Friston.
The dispute also highlights the problems for the Conservatives when it comes to squaring the government’s net zero ambitions with the concerns of its grassroots level.
Perhaps the government acknowledged this and launched an overview earlier this year on how to take a more “coordinated” approach to offshore wind developments and their associated infrastructure to reduce the potential impact on coastal communities.
The business department said the applications of the Suffolk projects were being considered “in accordance with the relevant procedures”.
Scottish Power said: “We have continued to listen to local communities and stakeholders, taking their feedback into account and adapting designs accordingly. It extends to our thoughtful efforts to protect the local environment. ”