Illustration by Chen Wu

Throughout 2023, protests were mounting against the imposition of new electricity transmission infrastructure on the British landscape. New projections suggest that to meet future electricity demand, the UK needs to build over five times as many new high-voltage transmission lines by 2030 as have been delivered over the last 30 years. But the journey there won’t be straightforward, not only because many don’t want pylons in their ‘backyard’ but also because of a deepening split between environmentalists who prioritise either landscape (anti-pylon conservationists) or climate (pro-pylon electrifiers). The question sparking debate in 2024 will be how decision-makers navigate the choices in the context of these differing views, showcasing the challenges we will face in tackling the ‘how’ of a green future.

In June 2023, East Anglian protestors wrote to the King, appealing to his well-known environmental concerns, to highlight their campaign against a 180km stretch of new pylons between Norwich and Tilbury. And last year saw rising protests against thousands of miles worth of new overhead high-voltage electricity cables to connect sites of renewable energy generation to the grid.

The debate over the transition to renewable energy is moving from ‘whether’ to ‘how and when’. Despite a few recent bumps in the road, like the greenlighting of new North Sea oil and gas licences, a clean, electricity-powered future optimistically beckons. But new battlegrounds are arising around the logistics of electrification, not least planned expansions of grid infrastructure to enable the connection and transmission of clean energy.

More renewable energy might be uncontroversial. But the means of delivering it are proving to be so. The need for more high-voltage transmission lines is sparking strong disagreement in affected communities over what to build where. Protestors, who often express environmental concerns, usually acknowledge the necessity of electrification but are calling for proper consideration of alternatives to the overhead lines that necessitate pylons, including underground and offshore cables.

A green dilemma

Amongst fears over the negative visual impact and health implications of pylons (often oversimplistically branded ‘nimbyism’), a keen concern for the environment drives many anti-pylon sympathisers. Campaigns cite concerns that pylons and other electrical infrastructure disrupt wildlife in rural ecosystems due to loss of habitats, noise pollution and collision risks with birds and insects. Commentators question whether the compromise of rural land to achieve a ‘green’ future is worthwhile in ringing rhetoric.

The evidence on environmental impact is not straightforward. A 2023 study from the Czech Republic argues that unfarmed grass beneath pylons actually creates good habitat for wildlife, unlike much of the tilled and sprayed agricultural land that surrounds them.

It’s becoming a conundrum for environmentalists. Is the ‘green’ thing to do to embrace eyesore infrastructure that will power future electricity demand sustainably, or prioritise the preservation of the natural ecosystems that benefit people and planet?

The pressure is on politicians to find solutions to the problem with pylons. They must now not only mediate between environmentalists and their detractors but manage mounting tensions between opposing factions that both style their interests as environmental. One option is to listen to the calls for alternatives to the miles of open-air cables required, such as underground or sub-sea cables; the government recently agreed to a study of such alternatives in response to the East Anglian protests. However, aside from hotly debated concerns about the expense and longevity of these alternative solutions, these arguably risk equivalent or greater environmental damage.

Underground cables, like those used in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, might reduce the visible impact on the landscape, but involve considerable environmental damage through an intrusive installation process. Over 14 times as much soil, dirt and rubble is excavated for underground cables than overhead ones; disruption is compounded by the need for regular replacement. Damage is also caused by heat dissipation into the surrounding earth. One promising innovation to mitigate longevity and thermal radiation risks is to use ‘gas-insulated lines’ over longer distances using more environmentally friendly gases. This is receiving Ofgem and National Grid investment.

Offshore infrastructure has similarly complex implications for marine ecosystems. Impacts are not wholly negative (with some evidence of at least short-term boosts to biodiversity, and some greater protection from fishing and trawling activities), but heat radiation, sediment instability, chemical and noise pollution, and entanglement are all risks according to 2018 research from Norway.

A different approach would be to avoid transmitting high voltages over long distances wherever possible. While it would require a radical system overhaul, greater decentralisation of distribution-level electricity generation and consumption, for example, through community generation, could mitigate the need for long stretches of ungainly overhead cables. Greater investment in community generation schemes would be required, as well as consideration of altogether new challenges, like security of supply in a world without HV transmission networks, or the fact that the grid isn’t set up to send electricity two-ways. There may well be anti-pylon-esque campaigns focused on different kinds of infrastructure, such as onshore wind turbines or space-intensive solar panels. Trade-offs are inevitable in any version of an electrified future.

Pylon politics

Between Labour’s proposals to reform planning rules for nationally significant infrastructure, and the Conservative government’s compensatory approach towards pylon hosts, the most likely future approach is to plough on. We will see continued attempts to remove barriers to expanding high-voltage transmission networks, including efforts to increase public acceptance through consultation and engagement, and improved design.

Anti-pylon rhetoric from 1928 to the present day accuses pylons of “striding through the landscape", being “a giant latticework intruder", and creating “visual damage" by “scything through the countryside in great ugly swathes". The problem with pylons clearly hasn’t been solved over the National Grid’s near century of existence.

In the near term, the conflict is likely to hot up as the imperatives rise against groundswells of localised opposition. As politicians attempt to navigate thorny tensions in the run-up to the next general election, the UK can expect ‘countryside furniture’ to spark continued debate between different environmentalist factions.