Friday, 16 July 2010

Highlands before Pylons

    Western Isles Transmission Link

The Story So Far

The focus of our campaign is a proposed new electricity transmission line to link the Western Isles to the mainland grid. The perceived need for this connection arises on the one side from plans to build large scale renewable power stations on the Western Isles, and on the other side from plans to build a 400kV substation at Beauly, near Inverness, which would be at the northern end of the proposed Beauly to Denny power line. As such, it is impossible to consider the Western Isles link without also thinking about the merits of these other projects, and these are discussed elsewhere on our web site. On this page, however, we give details mainly related to the Western Isles Connection.

Scottish Hydro Electric Transmission Limited (SHETL), which is part of the Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) group of companies, published a Preliminary Consultation Document in October 2004, which sought comments on various options for connecting major new wind farms on Lewis to the mainland grid.

The preliminary consultation document set out five separate route options for the new power line, all of which crossed the Highlands in the form of 400kV overhead lines. In February 2005, SHETL issued a report which stated that the original five routes had been reduced to two. It is also stated that the company were giving consideration to the use of underground DC cables, running to a point closer to Beauly.

In December 2006, the long awaited next phase of the consultation on the Western Isles connection was launched. The consultation document brought the news that the preferred option put forward by SHETL was for an underground cable from the west coast, just south of Ullapool, all the way to Beauly. This might seem like good news, but it leaves communities on the Western Isles, and elsewhere in the Highlands, blighted by industrial scale pylons and power plant. It is also the case that the underground cable solution through to Beauly is by no means assured, and SHETL include a proposal for a preferred overhead power line in the event that the underground cable is found to be unacceptable.

Finally, in October 2008, SHETL applied for consent to construct a transmission connection in the form of an undersea cable between Grabhair on Lewis and Little Loch Broom, and an underground cable between there and Beauly. It remains the case that the underground link is by no means assured - this application has many hurdles to clear. In the meantime, therefore, we continue to give below our view on the overhead line proposals, and the long distance subsea cable alternative.

The Area Affected

The preferred route of an overhead power line from Ullapool to Beauly would run through a tremendous variety of landscapes, from the coastal tranquility at Ardmair, through wild mountains, to the farmland around Beauly. Now that details of the proposed route are published, here you will soon be able to follow the route with the help of samples from the photographic survey that we are carrying out, and see what we are trying to save. Click here to see an example.

The Proposed Power Line

The proposal by SHETL is for a power line to connect major new wind farms on Lewis to the mainland, using a 400 kV overhead power line from Ardmair (on the West Coast north of Ullapool), to Beauly. The line will be carried on pylons (transmission towers) 45 to 50 metres high, at a spacing of about 300 metres (or so we are told).

How high is a pylon? In the voluntary consultation stage of the Beauly to Denny line, SSE quoted heights of around 50 metres. However, our understanding is that the final plans now submitted include a significant number of pylons at around 67 metres high.

The Effect of the Development

The topics that we are addressing include:

Visual impact on predominantly unspoilt scenery, much of which is regularly seen by residents and tourists.

Tourism - with beautiful scenery and unspoilt landscapes high on the agenda for the vast majority of visitors, there is a fear that the local economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism, will be badly affected.

Wild life and natural habitats - from the effect of access tracks on drainage, to bird collision with overhead lines, there are many factors that add to the true cost of the pylons.

Health - there is mounting scientific evidence to show that there is a health risk from high overhead voltage power lines, and nothing to show that they are completely safe. Our conclusion to date is that a low level of risk is not to be dismissed, and that it would be prudent to keep the power lines well away from any habitation. Reasonable guidance from a leading expert in the field is a separation of at least 200m to protect against the effect of magnetic fields, and 400m in areas with more atmospheric pollution, where charged particles known as corona ions are of concern.

What next? Is this the thin end of the wedge?  We are concerned that a power line will attract proposals for major wind farm developments in areas around the power line, which will have a further effect on areas of great natural beauty. It is also clear that reinforcement of the grid is being carried out incremenally, and that other areas will be targetted once the Lewis-Ullapool-Beauly-Denny line is complete. The other lines set to be upgraded to 400kV include those north of Beauly, to Dounreay, east of Beauly to Keith, and south of Denny, through the Borders to England.


We believe that an overhead power line is completely inappropriate along the entire route from Ullapool to Beauly, and indeed, in any of the unspoilt areas of the Highlands of Scotland. It is essential that alternative schemes are considered, and an important part of our campaign is studying these alternatives, and then making constructive suggestions.

At a fundamental level, we believe that it is misguided to build massive power stations at a point far distant from where the electricity will be consumed. The social, environmental and health costs of the power stations (mainly wind farms to date), and transmission lines (entirely overhead to date), outweigh the advantage to be gained from exploitation of renewable energy resources. There are many alternative methods by which the UK and Scottish governments can meet their long term targets for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. These include building the renewable power plant closer to where the electricity is consumed (this will result in small scale generating and distribution plant throughout the Highlands), and placing legal requirements on energy efficiency of buildings.

If large scale power stations are built on the Western Isles, our conclusion is that the best alternative option is a long distance undersea cable, taking the electricity more directly to where it is needed, either in central Scotland, or England. This option - the West Coast Interconnector - is more expensive, but the advantages to all (including the developer) are so great, that we believe that the extra cost is justified.

The basic advantages of an undersea cable direct to England, when compared with an overhead line on pylons are:

   Elimination of planning delays

   Reduced environmental impact

   Reduced transmission losses

   Elimination of risk of damage, and disruption of supply, due to increasingly severe storms

   Reduced requirement to upgrade the mainland Scotland-England interconnector

   Elimination of potential health risks

Full details of the issues, including cost comparisons, are given in our discussion of the alternatives to pylons.

What happens next?

We are seeking clarification from SSE on the exact nature of their application to construct the subsea/underground cable, and whether any public consultation will take place.

Who to Contact

Click here to see who to write to, suggestion of what to write, and other ways of helping.

Highlands against pylons

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