The UK’s drive to decarbonise the energy sector faces a big test within weeks when a minister rules on whether two wind farms off a tranquil area of England’s east coast should go ahead despite strong opposition from locals about 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 hosting the infrastructure that is required to connect to the electricity grid the slew of clean energy projects that are planned for the North Sea.
In February, villagers in the neighbouring county of Norfolk succeeded in overturning approval for another large offshore wind farm proposed by the Swedish company Vattenfall, following concerns over the visual impact of an onshore substation.
The government has set a target of quadrupling the UK’s offshore wind capacity to 40GW by the end of the decade as part of its goal to decarbonise Britain’s electricity system by 2035.
But Suffolk residents have identified at least eight proposed energy projects they claim could “irrevocably damage” the county’s coastal areas, unless the onshore infrastructure to connect them to the electricity grid is co-ordinated and reduced. In addition to new offshore wind projects, National Grid is planning to install several new subsea cables that trade electricity with continental Europe.
Energy companies and environment campaigners acknowledge privately that if it is not handled carefully, local opposition in the east of England could lead to “Onshore wind 2.0”. Former prime minister David Cameron banned 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 work and pensions secretary, who has backed the campaign for alternative sites for the substations.
Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said: “The onshore wind industry caused trouble for itself by hoping to railroad local consent. Lessons from that debacle must be learnt — the onshore parts of future offshore wind developments must be justified to avoid being fought by nearby communities.”
Suffolk residents argue the onshore infrastructure required for the two ScottishPower schemes would “gouge a motorway-sized scar” through the fragile cliffs of Thorpeness and the county’s historic coastal towns. They will also require a large substation complex in the medieval Suffolk village 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 January 6.
The plans have also placed the ruling Conservative party at odds with some of its traditional supporters in the hitherto extremely loyal constituency of Suffolk Coastal.
Fiona Gilmore, who heads the local campaign group Suffolk Energy Action Solutions, stressed it was not opposed to the wind farms but believed it was possible to connect projects and export their electricity to a single onshore hub on a brownfield site.
In her view, “local communities are being subjected to the careless and callous treatment of developers who are using this countryside as a dumping ground for their green gold, their wind energy”.
Alexander Gimson is chair of the Wardens Trust, a charity offering recreational facilities for people with disabilities along the area’s cliffs.
Under ScottishPower’s plans, construction of a cable that would take place 100 yards from the charity’s headquarters, would last 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 in excess of £50,000 by ScottishPower to allow it to carry out works such as moving fencing and stables. The sum included an “incentive payment” for signing a contract.
A letter sent to Gimson’s mother by lawyers acting on behalf of ScottishPower, stated that in accepting the payments, Gimson would not be able to “make a representation” regarding the development consent orders for the two projects. He believes this would be akin to a “gagging order”.
Scottish Power said: “We refute the claims made in relation to our approach to land agreements in the strongest possible terms, including any suggestion we are trying to undermine the planning process. These claims are misleading and false.”
It said no such agreements had been entered into. “All of our agreements are prepared in line with the highest industry standards.”
Suffolk residents said they would be less upset if the county were to benefit from an offshore wind jobs boom but fear it will only get “crumbs from the table”, with a limited number of operations and maintenance roles. This contrasts with Teesside and Hull, which have attracted investment from companies including General Electric and Siemens Gamesa for offshore wind manufacturing facilities.
“If somebody said to me that is what East Suffolk is going to get I might be a little less opposed to the onshore part of these projects,” said 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 base.
Perhaps recognising this, the government earlier this year launched a review on how to take a more “co-ordinated” approach to offshore wind developments and their associated infrastructure to reduce the potential impact on coastal communities.
The business department said the Suffolk projects’ applications were being considered “in line with the relevant procedures”.
Scottish Power said: “We’ve continued to listen to local communities and stakeholders and take account of their feedback, adapting designs accordingly. This extends to our considered efforts to protect the local environment.”