Energy firm at centre of pylons row claims putting cables underground would cost up to 10 times more
A controversial plan to connect energy produced from onshore wind to the National Grid via a network of pylons running through some of Wales’ most attractive countryside would cost between six and 10 times as much if it was transported underground, according to the company behind the scheme.
Bute Energy – and its subsidiary company Green GEN Towy Usk – has faced significant opposition to its plans from local people concerned about the visual impact of erecting pylons from Radnor Forest to near Carmarthen, as well as from organisations like the countryside charity CPRW.
In response to a series of questions from Nation Cymru, Bute has reaffirmed its intention to build power lines overground, despite the Welsh Government’s preference for putting them underground. The company has, however, said that there are elements of the route that could be undergrounded “for a range of technical or visual impact reasons”.
Bute has also revealed that the estimated value of its projects in Wales amounts to £209m, while it intends to create up to 150 jobs.
The questions we put to Bute, together with the company’s responses, have been grouped into themes:
Grid Connection and Distribution Strategy
1 How have you evaluated the feasibility of upgrading and utilising the existing National Grid Electricity Distribution lines?
In developing Green GEN Towy Usk, we carefully considered the feasibility of using existing infrastructure. However, the existing lower voltage network around Nant Mithil [near Llandrindod Wells] and other Bute Energy Parks does not have the capacity to transport the amount of power that the Energy Parks will generate efficiently. We’re committed to finding the most effective and economic solutions.
2 Can you provide insights into the “Green GEN Phase 1 Grid Connection Strategy” and its justification based on costs? Are multiple connection options still under consideration, and how do you justify the additional costs associated with each?
Our approach is based on standard industry cost estimates, and we’ll be updating these in the coming months as we gather more information on our proposed route. However, we are committed to keeping the impact on local communities to a minimum. As our design and routing evolve, we are in discussions with contractors and other companies to explore innovative technical options, including potentially more economical methods of underground cable installation.
As detailed in our consultation documents, we explored 11 connection options during the development phase. Our first round of consultation, earlier this year, focussed on our preferred route: aiming to connect the clean, green energy generated in the Radnor Forest area to the National Grid near Carmarthen. Throughout the remainder of 2023, we will continue to review environmental and technical surveys and industry reports, leading up to our next round of consultation on Green GEN Towy Usk in early 2024.
3 Is there potential for upgrading the planned line of L7 pylons in the future?
Green GEN Towy Usk is designed with a 132kV double circuit overhead line supported by L7 pylons, each averaging 27m in height. We have no plans to upgrade these pylons.
Undergrounding, Power Lines, and Project Phases
1 In line with Planning Policy Wales PW11, have you conducted any cost analysis on undergrounding power lines? How does this impact the viability of your projects?
Planning Policy Wales says where possible, power lines should be laid underground. However, it is recognised that a balanced view must be taken against costs which could render otherwise acceptable projects unviable.
Current industry data shows that the full undergrounding of the Towy Usk project could be between 6-10 times more costly than overhead lines, potentially rendering the project unviable. As we evolve the design of the project however, there may be locations where it is appropriate for a range of technical or visual impact reasons, that elements of the route could be undergrounded.
We share Planning Policy Wales’ ambition to minimise visual impact, and are following the advice it sets out, engaging with the public to mitigate visual impact. Earlier this year, over 2500 local people participated in an initial round of consultation for Green GEN Towy Usk.
Throughout this year, we’ll be reviewing their feedback and additional environmental and technical reports, ensuring that we respond thoughtfully to the concerns raised. We are committed to doing everything we can to cause the least disturbance to the environment, residents, workers, and recreational users near our proposals, and we look forward to continued dialogue with the community.
2 Can you describe the projected timeline and phases for the power line development, including consultations and applications?
Green GEN Towy Usk is a Development of National Significance, which means there’s a clearly structured approach to engagement with local people.
Early in 2023, over 2500 local people took part in an initial round of consultation. Their feedback, particularly about the visual impact and community effects, will be reviewed alongside further environmental and technical surveys throughout the rest of 2023.
We want to cause the least disturbance to those who live, work, and enjoy recreation near our proposals. We anticipate launching the next round of consultation in early 2024, before submitting our application for a Development of National Significance to the Welsh Government in 2025.
3 How do you respond to the criticism that the Towy Usk line is a distribution line in name only, and that it will be taking power straight to the grid rather than providing what you claim is “clean, green energy” to local communities?
We understand that the terminology surrounding electricity distribution can be complex. The Towy Usk line is designed to connect Bute Energy’s proposed Energy Parks to the National Grid. This is a vital step in providing clean, green energy not just for the local area but more widely. In the UK, electricity “distribution” is used to typically describe the movement of electricity at voltages up to 132kV.
We are actively exploring opportunities for integrating Green GEN Towy Usk with existing distribution networks, reflecting our commitment to delivering clean, green energy to local communities.
Project Scope and Integration
1 Regarding the cancellation of Moelfre Energy Park, Conwy, and its reasons, how many of the originally planned energy parks do you anticipate building?
Throughout 2022 and 2023, we were in the very early assessment phase for the proposed Moelfre Energy Park. Regrettably, due to various site-specific factors, such as access, ecological considerations, and technical constraints, this particular proposal will not be advancing.
We are working with various technical and specialist stakeholders in the early stages of development for most of our Energy Parks. The focus is to create projects that balance renewable energy production and minimal environmental impact.
We have developed our portfolio based on deliverability and are confident in the progression of our projects into development and construction. As emphasized by the Welsh Government, a diverse range of technologies is essential for security of supply, and our anticipation is to have the projects operational by 2028, contributing to the clean, green energy landscape.
2 How is the capacity of the GreenGEN Towy Usk power line compatible with the planned energy parks? Are there any bigger projects beyond what’s publicised?
Strategic planning for Green GEN Towy Usk is closely aligned with proposed Energy Parks, such as the Nant Mithil Energy Park, which could potentially generate up to 237MW of renewable energy. Several other Bute Energy Energy Parks nearby are currently in the early assessment and feasibility stage, and we expect to share detailed information on these proposals with the local community in Q4 [October to December] 2023.
The design of Green GEN Towy Usk is mindful of consolidating and minimising new infrastructure. This system will be accessible to all, mirroring existing distribution networks, thus providing connection possibilities for other renewable generation or new commercial, residential, or industrial users.
Our ongoing engagement with grid operators underlines our commitment to explore all possibilities for connecting Green GEN Towy Usk to the existing network, ensuring an efficient, sustainable, and community-friendly approach.
Turbines and Technical Details
1 In stating the potential power and environmental benefits of the Nant Mithil turbines, what load/capacity factor have you used to arrive at these figures?
While there are a number of site-specific details that contribute to capacity factor, modern onshore wind turbines of the type we are considering, could have a capacity factor of between 30-40%.
2 Considering the disparity between the lifetime of turbines and the project length you’ve mentioned, how do you address potential environmental and logistical concerns related to replacements?
The standard operational life of a wind farm spans up to 40 years. This includes ongoing maintenance of essential components like turbine towers, nacelles, and blades.
After the expected 40-year operational period, wind farms may be decommissioned, or separate application can be made to either extend the site’s operational life or repower it.
Each Energy Park application will include a full decommissioning plan as a planning condition.
Strategic Planning and Feasibility
1 How has Bute Energy coordinated its efforts with the wider plans of the National Grid and the emerging developments in the Floating Offshore Wind sector in the Celtic Sea?
We are working closely with National Grid Electricity Transmission on their plans for improving the grid infrastructure across Wales. Floating Offshore Wind will play a big role in the future energy system, but onshore wind, with its established technology and potential for rapid development, remains a vital component in meeting Wales’ future energy needs.
2 How do you ensure that the variable output from wind turbines doesn’t create complications for the broader grid? Do you have strategies for synchronising your energy output with other providers?
This is a question for National Grid Electricity System Operator. However, renewable sources of energy, on and offshore wind, solar, and others, have been successfully integrated into the National Grid to date.
Regulations and Licences
1 Can you comment on the status and challenges surrounding the approval of your independent distribution network operator’s licence by Ofgem?
Green GEN Cymru’s application for an Independent Distribution Network Operator (IDNO) license was accepted for processing in January 2023. At this stage Ofgem are still considering the application.
Financial Plans and Business Strategy:
1 Could you provide details on the financial planning, especially in the context of rising financing and material costs? What are the exit plans for Bute and CI IV[CI IV is the flagship fund of Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP), and the world’s largest fund dedicated to greenfield renewable energy investments. It is the main source of investment funding for Bute Energy]? Are there any ongoing discussions about selling to the Welsh Government?
Bute Energy is fully funded through the development phase of our Energy Park and Grid projects.
We currently plan to develop and operate our wind portfolio alongside CIP, and to clarify, there are no ongoing discussions or plans to sell to the Welsh Government or any other entity. Our financial strategy considers factors such as rising financing and material costs, and we remain committed to our development goals.
2 What about the recent financial documents you’ve submitted to Companies House. What do they say?
Bute Energy continues to grow as our projects proceed through the development process. This is an accounting adjustment in line with standard accounting practice connected with a decision to report investments at fair value, rather than cost.
It is based on the Board’s assessment of the fair value of the organisation and its portfolio of projects, and ongoing investment – approx. £209m in total.
Community Engagement and Impact:
1 Given the amount of opposition faced, how do you address concerns from local communities, particularly about tourism, property values, and jobs? Are there plans for compensation for those affected negatively?
We place significant emphasis on early consultation with local communities and stakeholders, recognising these concerns. Our ongoing engagement process includes a thorough review of feedback, further assessments, and careful design work to reduce potential effects. To support an application for planning consent we will prepare a report considering the positive and negative social economic impacts of the project, how we have tried to reduce the impact and how we are proposing to mitigate any potential effects.
It’s crucial to recognise that there are many places across Wales and the UK as a whole where electricity infrastructure coexists with thriving landscape, agriculture, and tourism sectors.
2 How many permanent, long-term jobs will be created by your energy park and power line projects, and what sort of jobs will they be?
Our energy park and grid projects have the potential to create up to 150 long-term jobs across various roles, including engineering and maintenance. We are also working with local education, training, and employability providers to create inclusive employment pathways to enter the renewable energy industry.
This includes work with local colleges to enhance the provision of green skill development programmes available locally, creating green skills centres of excellence across Wales, enabling a pipeline of talent for the renewable energy industry.
3 You have had to apologise in the past for the bullish way in which your agents have treated some landowners. What do you say to those people who have felt intimidated by these people coming on to their land uninvited or in an intimidating way?
We extend our sincere apologies to anyone who has felt intimidated by the actions of our team or agents working on our behalf. Our intention is always to engage respectfully and transparently.
We have a robust complaints process in place, and we would encourage those with concerns to contact us directly. We value our relationships with landowners and communities and are committed to maintaining these connections with care and integrity.
4 How do you envision the role of the Bute Energy Advisory Board and its interactions with the Welsh Government?
The Bute Advisory Board provides valued support and advice to the Bute Energy leadership team. While its primary focus is on guiding our company’s direction and initiatives, we are of course mindful of alignment with Welsh Government policies and objectives.
5 Why are you planning to allocate the community benefit fund under specific headings, chosen by yourselves? Why not just give communities the money to spend as they see fit?
The allocation of Community Benefit Funding is not dictated by Bute Energy. The process is designed to be participatory and responsive to the local communities’ needs. We focus on engaging with local people and stakeholders to understand their priorities, such as health, education, employment opportunities, and cultural heritage. As projects develop and time passes, these areas of focus will evolve and change.
Bute Energy Community Benefit Funds will be formed as separate charitable entities, and decision-making will be led by a grants panel of individuals who live and or work near the project, with lived experience of local priorities.
Future Vision and Trends
1 With rapid advancements in offshore wind technology and its capacity, how does Bute Energy see its onshore projects fitting into the broader energy landscape of the UK?
Offshore wind will play a big role in decarbonising Wales and the UK. But as the Welsh Government acknowledge, we need a range of green energy technologies to ensure diversity and security of supply. Our onshore wind projects will complement other renewable sources of energy, offering a tried and trusted technology that can be developed quickly while aligning with the broader decarbonisation objectives of Wales – supporting the Welsh Government’s target for electricity to be 100% renewable by 2035.
2 Wouldn’t offshore developments provide all the energy required for Wales’ electricity needs, making it unnecessary to destroy swathes of unique and remote rural landscape forever?
The potential of offshore wind is undoubtedly vast, but relying solely on it overlooks the importance of a diversified energy mix. Onshore wind, with its established technology and potential for rapid development, remains a vital component in meeting Wales’ future energy needs.
Climate change is an immediate risk that we need to address and solve now, and onshore wind can be delivered at a speed that offshore cannot match. All of our portfolio can be generating clean, green energy before 2030.
We are committed to responsible development, taking into account environmental considerations, and preserving unique and remote rural landscapes. Our focus is on a balanced and sustainable approach that serves both the environment and the energy needs of Wales.
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