Green Energy Casts a Shadow Over a Cherished English Landscape

Charlotte Banks lives in a house that just about anyone would envy. Hempnalls Hall, a pink structure dating to the 16th century, rises above an even older moat, dug to keep marauders away in ancient times.

Now, a different type of threat looms. National Grid, Britain’s electricity system operator, proposes building a sprawling, 110-mile transmission line through the countryside of eastern England where Ms. Banks lives.

The overhead wires would bring clean electricity generated by nearby offshore wind farms and a new nuclear plant to London and other population centers in the southeast of the country.

That means a 160-foot-tall, high-voltage pylon would stand in a farmer’s field about an eighth of a mile from her house. Ms. Banks supported efforts to tackle climate change, she said, but she questioned whether erecting a ribbon of steel towers through an area known for its quiet, rural beauty is the right solution.

“How much of the environment do they destroy for the sake of saving the planet?” she asked.

In East Anglia, a largely rural region of pebbled beaches, farms and ancient churches northeast of London, some people are asking similar questions. They worry that power lines, electrical substations and other structures necessary for a future that demands more electricity will reduce real estate values, drive away tourists and, above all, disfigure an area that inspired the work of the renowned British landscape painter John Constable in the early 19th century.

“One of the most beautiful parts of England is going to be an industrial site,” said Andy Wood, chief executive of Adnams, a 150-year-old company that operates a brewery, hotels and pubs from the seaside town Southwold, who fears fewer tourists will be drawn to the area.

The friction here is a result of an issue often overlooked in the global race to develop clean energy. Greater reliance on electricity to power cars and heat homes will require major upgrades of power transmission networks that often roil communities and can disturb sensitive environments.

National Grid says that to handle the expected increased flows of electricity and to reach new sources of generation, like offshore wind farms, an upgrade of the power system costing tens of billions of pounds over the next decade will be needed.

“The network to transmit the large volumes of high voltage electricity is just totally required to change,” said Carl Trowell, the company’s president of strategic infrastructure.

While residents of East Anglia protest that they are not indulging in NIMBYism, or resistance to projects in their home areas, or opposed to cleaner energy, their concerns could hobble Britain’s meeting its climate goals.

Perhaps more than any major economy, Britain is counting on offshore wind farms to achieve a large portion of its emission reduction goals. Many of these spinning turbines will be placed in the North Sea, off Britain’s east coast, and the power industry wants to bring some of the electricity generated ashore through East Anglia.

That electricity would need to connect to power hubs on land — work that often involves cutting trenches across private land for cables — before being carried south on tall overhead towers.

The fact that these scars on their landscape are for the benefit of consumers in London adds to the simmering tension. Opponents say less painful alternatives can be found.

Giles Coode-Adams lives in a 15th-century house in Coggeshall that was once a resting point on the pilgrimage route to Canterbury. A former president of the venerable Royal Horticultural Society, Mr. Coode-Adams worries that plans to construct pylons across his fields of black currant bushes will undo his work to make the land more attractive for winter birds and insects, including the 135 species of moths identified there. “It will have a huge visual impact on what we believe is a beautiful and historic valley — none of which is acknowledged by National Grid,” he said.

Landowners say they are in a kind of limbo, unable to sell their property or bolster their income with businesses like holiday cottages. “The flexibility of what I can do on the farm is all on hold,” said Peter Colchester, whose barley and bean fields are designated for pylons.

Not everyone is dispirited. Michael Savory, who owns and manages a military museum with a collection of tanks and other vehicles on the Norfolk coast, said he did not mind the heavy construction work on his land to prepare the way for cables from an offshore wind farm called Hornsea Three; cables from two other wind farms already cross his property. “It’s not very disruptive,” he said, standing by a World War II pillbox. “When the ground is all back to normal, you would not know it.”

Opponents of National Grid’s plans say they are trying to push the government and the energy companies to make smarter choices. “If this was the best solution, we would all applaud,” said Fiona Gilmore, who is campaigning against proposals to bring power lines through sensitive wildlife habitat on the coast.

Politically, this area is dominated by the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. With a national election expected next year, local Conservatives have picked up on the discontent.

“I’ve never known such a chorus of disapproval across such a wide area,” said Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative member of Parliament.

Unless authorities find a way to win local support, Britain’s efforts to reduce emissions could be hobbled, these lawmakers said. “Communities need to be treated fairly, and they are not at the moment,” said Richard Rout, a Conservative local official in Suffolk. Some lawmakers have joined demonstrations against the pylons, including one recently held by residents in Wortham Ling in Suffolk.

Mr. Sunak appears to be carefully straddling the issue. In a speech last month, he acknowledged the slow pace in upgrading the power grid posed a roadblock to achieving Britain’s net-zero ambitions and he promised reforms to the approval process “to give industry certainty and every community a say.”

National Grid has held initial consultations with residents about the pylon line, and more talks are planned for next year. A final sign off by the government might occur in 2025 with construction beginning in 2027.

Residents say the meetings were unsatisfactory because the company presented the pylons as a fait accompli. “There were no choices given, so what was there to consult about?” asked Ann Stevens, who lives in the small village Forncett Saint Mary. She discovered in what she first thought was junk mail that National Grid intended to put pylons in fields near her home.

Rosie Pearson, the founder of Pylons East Anglia, an advocacy organization, said the grid operator failed to consider alternatives, such as running the cables offshore.

That idea, backed by others opposing the pylons, calls for laying the power transmission lines on the bottom of the North Sea, similar to what Belgium and the Netherlands do, through a chain of energy hubs on artificial islands that would end around the mouth of the River Thames near London. If it is necessary to bring cables to shore in East Anglia, it would be better to do so at industrial sites, like a former nuclear power station at Bramwell, critics say.

National Grid is now reviewing more coordination of offshore links, but the company says that putting much of the grid offshore would raise costs that would then be passed on to consumers.

“Offshore is more expensive, typically by about five times,” Mr. Trowell said.

And if some form of the pylon proposal moves forward, Ms. Pearson plans to press for much higher payouts to people in the way of these plans than are currently available. “We want impacts on businesses and residents independently assessed and full compensation paid,” she said.

At present, National Grid pays farmers up to 8,000 pounds, or $9,700, for each tower, along with possible additional payments.

Germany has faced similar opposition to new power lines for years. Citizens’ groups, citing potential threats including a risk to native hamsters in Bavaria, have essentially blocked a key artery bringing power from wind farms in the north to cities in the south. Only 10 miles of an intended 430 miles of the link have been completed, although the initial plan was for it to be in operation by 2022.

Nick Winser, Britain’s electricity commissioner, wants to try to mitigate the sense of unfairness by paying lump sums to households near new infrastructure and setting up funds to help their communities gain access to low-cost green power. These projects benefit society, he said in an interview, but “often they don’t bring tangible benefits to the local communities they go through.”

How well such inducements would play in a proud area like East Anglia is open to question.

“Trying to bribe homeowners with compensation” will fail, Mr. Jenkin said, unless National Grid thoroughly considers alternatives.

Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.

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