SVU Newsletter for May


Posted Thursday, 19 May 2011 

More big questions....

Are National Grid changing their tune?

We take a closer look at their latest newsletter 

and look for the underlying messages.

Why does undergrounding costs so much according to National Grid?

We look at a directly comparable infrastructure development

and wonder why such works cost the electricity transmission industry

so much more than the water industry.

Why are they switching windfarms off?

Recently, during a seeming electricity glut, 6 Scottish windfarms 

were paid up to £300,000 eachto switch off to allow fossil fuel and nuclear power stations to stay on line.

This points up the way money is being thrown at the renewable energy industryto encourage the funding of renewable generation

while the transmission industry is regulated out of

funding environmentally beneficial transmission strategies.

Are our windfarms coming up with the goods anyway?

We also look at worrying figures that suggest that windfarms only producearound 20% of the power their "installed capacity" rating.

When will a real need for a Bramford to Twinstead Connection actually arise?

Once again, the completion dates for Sizewell's new nuclear reactors have been put back.

What can we draw from putting all of these issues together?

We provide some compelling conclusions and pose a crucial question to the energy industry.

And so to our first question:

Are National Grid changing their tune?

Well lets take a brief look at the latest NG Project Newsletter. Open it flat and what do we see? NO PYLONS or powerlines scarring our big East Anglian sky. They must have realised that we see these iniquitous intrusions in our landscape as profoundly ugly so unlike the first leaflet they sent us, the cover picture has no pylons and the projects name now seems to have changed to "Bramford To Twinstead Tee Connection" with no mention of overhead lines. Could this be a sign of a change of emphasis or even that they are considering the underground strategy we have advocated all along? That might be a little too wishful but a page of the Newsletter is dedicated to undergrounding cost reports and consultations. One interesting fact to note is that NG are pressing ahead with putting up new, higher capacity lines on the existing pylons and are adding hugely to the Bramford Sub Station. We wonder if the rush is consequent of a strategic decision to put the infrastructure in place to add pressure for a windfarm connection strategy that brings a full 1/5 of the UK's electricity through our valleys. As you will be aware, we, along with many others including Suffolk County Council believe that this is the wrong strategy and that a more direct connection to London and the Supergrid should be implemented.

National Grid say in the Newsletter that they are awaiting the government instigated report on the cost of underground transmission before moving on with their consultation. Naturally, we have continued to do our homework on this issue and by the time we publish our next newsletter will have details of costs direct from the electrical engineering manufacturers and the civil engineering company that actually builds electricity transmission tunnels so that we can more reliably assertain the cost for thegas insulated lines in a tunnelstrategy we have been advocating.

In the meanwhile, we have some remarkable and very thought provokinginformation that leads tothe next of our questions:-

Why does undergrounding costso much more according to National Grid?

We don't know! We have speculated that there are too many companies in the food chain that exists between National Grid and the company that actually executes the work. Public domain figures we have given you before suggest that a £200 million transmission tunnel contract is worth less than £100 million to the company that carries out the work. The procurement strategy also seems less than able to deliver best value for money. But as we say, we do not know for sure. What we need is a directly comparable infrastructure project from another industry to compare with costs in the electricity transmission industry - AND WE HAVE FOUND ONE!

What we are going to relate to you next frankly astounded us in terms of comparability of project and cost. This project is a water industry one.

The Abberton Scheme which you can read abouthereis a £150 million project by Essex and Suffolk Water (E&SW).The scheme involves the undergrounding of 32km of 1.2m diameter in-situ welded steel water pipe at a depth of 1 to 4m with full soil and planting reinstatement.Importantly, a major part of this project is situated in and around the Stour Valley on the Suffolk/Essex border and also involves them in putting a power supply cable underground from Marks Tey to Wormingford to power a water pumping station as the existing local power supply is not up to the job.There are clearly strong parallels between this project and an underground power line strategy for National Grid's Bramford -Twinstead Project.

As stated earlier, the total ES&W project cost is £150 million but this covers far more than just the pipe laying. The project includes a huge water storage facility and large pumping station at Wormingford amongst other things.

Lets look more closely at just how comparable to a Bramford to Twinstead Underground Powerline Project the Abberton Scheme is:-

The total length of the pipe to be buried is 32km (slightly longer than the Bramford - Twinstead connection) in a trench 2m wide and worked from a strip totalling 30m wide with the pipe installed at a depth of between 1 & 4 metres below the surface, Project costs include full reinstatement of the land once the pipe is installed. This is very similar indeed to the work needed to direct bury gas insulated powerlines.

The pipe is brought to site in 15m lengths x 1200mm diameter and is on-site welded both inside and out and then tested - more than somewhat similar to the gas insulated underground power line (GIL) installation process, though this pipe is vast compared to GIL. (Here we are comparing burying 6 smaller pipes instead of one huge one)

Now lets look at the glaring difference between this and National Grid's underground cost estimates.

National Grid have come up with estimates for undergrounding the Bramford to Twinstead connection variously in the region of £600 to £900 million

The total contract cost for pipe, installation, burial and reinstatement within the Abberton Scheme is just £25million

of which

only £12million is the cost for burial, the remainder being for the pipe and the reinstatement/environmental snagging

( which accounts for £3million).

The time scale for this is a total contract period of 12-15 months with the actual pipe laying taking just 9 months of that total. The work started Jan 2011 and will finish on current projections New Year 2012.

By way of an asside, the underground power supply line which will run beside the water pipe is only 3.3kV but it is nonetheless underground, in a conduit. The total cost for this underground cable installation is £2million and is being carried out by EDF's successor, UK Power Networks.

All of this information comes direct from the E&SW Abberton Scheme Project Manager to whom I am extremely grateful for his helpful and very open sharing of this information on his project.

And so to our next question...

Why are they switching windfarms of and are they coming up with the goods anyway?

SVU are, as we regularly state, very pro renewable and low carbon energy generation. But one of the problems that comes with wind generation is the potential for a consequent plague of power lines on pylons. That is just one reason why we are so keen to see the government develop a regulatory regime that allows the funding of putting the power lines underground. But the regulatory regime needs much more far reaching revision than just this. Take the issue of payment fornotgenerating electricity. Yes you read that correctly.

In an ideal world, when the wind farms are producing sufficient power, you switch off the fossil fuel burning power stations to save fuel, money and the environment. But this is not what happens because you cannot take them off line quickly. You can however speedily switch off a wind farm and that is what happens now. During a recent period of just two days energy surplus on the grid, Scottish windfarm owners were paid a total of £900,000 to producenoelectricity, or put another way, as much as £300,000 each! or yet another way, upto 20 times the amount they would have been paid for the energy they would have generated!

So wind farms that are only producing 20% or so of installed capacity anyway are currently being paid more for not producing electricity than they would be for producing it. Read more on this on the BBC websitehere. This situation needs sorting because the money being wasted here could clearly be put to good use - into undergrounding the power lines. The over-expectation of output from windfarms together with the need to connect them to the grid from isolated and diverse locations could lead to a huge proliferation of over specified, overground power lines. No wonder the people of Wales who are subject to major windfarm/connection projects (one is for an 800(!) on-land turbine project) are up in arms about the overhead line proposals that are a consequence of windfarms proposed for their starkly beautiful landscape. More on this at

When will a real need for a new Bramford to Twinstead Connection actually arise?

Again we don't know exactly but we are certain that the answer is nowhere near as soon as the dates the Bramford-Twinstead project proposals were and are based on.

Local Government in the East of England has now been provided with revised dates for the proposed new nuclear generators at Sizewell to come on-line and as we predicted a long while back, the dates are now said to be 2023 or more likely 2025. This, taken together with the fact that National Grid are currently going ahead with "reconductoring" the existing pylon lines (a measure that will add 50% to their existing transmission capacity) logically means that the pressure should be off rushing to install yet more pylons here.

With recent figures on the actual output from wind farms showing that they produce far less power than originally claimed, and great uncertainty as to how the North Sea windfarms will be connected, this is surely a powerful argument to delay, re-think and properly appraise and cost the new transmission technologies that can erases pylon blighting from our valuable landscapes.

As we have seen from the above mentioned water industry project, both underground and overhead strategies can be completed in around a year so there is really no practical reason to press forward with National Grid's project timescale, a timescale based on now clearly unachievable low carbon generation on-line dates.

What conclusions can we draw from putting all of these issues together?

The inescapable conclusion from the evidence we provide at the top of this newsletter is that National Grid's estimates of the cost for an underground connection from Bramford to Twinstead are grossly exaggerated. Whatever the reason for this, it undermines the credibility of any figures they publish with respect to cost comparisons with overhead lines. National Grid have provided "evidence" to the enquiry mentioned above into the costs of undergrounding and we can only conclude that this evidence will tend to skew the enquiry's conclusions. (Details of the IET/KEMA Undergrounding Enquiryhere.)

In last month's newsletter we told of how National Grid had been doing their homework and came to our last meeting forearmed with a specification for underground transmission in response to our underground connection proposals contained on ourwebsite and newsletters. Even if we work with their stated transmission capacity requirement, then based on figures provided in writing by Siemens for the cost of the underground power lines and combining them with the costs to direct bury them, drawn from the Abberton Scheme, the total is less than half of what National Grid have indicated.

Then we have to bring into doubt the need for this capacity because unless there is major change to the way the electricity generation system is managed, East Anglia's (proposed) 3 new nuclear powerstations plus the new gas fired stations will be left running while the windfarms are switched off when there is a surfeit of energy being generated in this region. The need for this additional transmission capacity is further brought into question because of the low actual output that comes from the windfarms. The wind energy industry recently poo pooed a report that put the output of the Scottish windfarms at below 23% of "installed capacity" and yet they themselves said the a truer figure was 24% - nowhere near the previously claimed 30%. . More on thishere.A recent Guardian article suggested that in Wales, opinion is mixed about windfarms but united against overhead lines and pylons. Thearticleargued that the move to renewable generation will falter unless underground electricity transmission is embraced because of public opposition to overhead lines.

We also note the timescale of the Abberton Scheme: no time squandering planning application to the IPC with its drawn out, multi stage public consultation process is needed as such underground projects merely go through the normal planning system. Plus, the speed with which E&SW's contractors are carrying out the civil engineering shows that National Grid could easily carry out our proposed underground Bramford to Twinstead connection as quickly as they could blight our landscape with more pylons. Given this and the further delays to Sizewell's redevelopment, National Grid have much more time to get acquainted with 21st century transmission technology and get their Bramford - Twinsted Connection "decision" right.

And so to our key point this month...

In his lovely jovial way, our contact at Siemens refers to Gas Insulated Underground Powerlines (GIL) as "plumbing". GIL is, after all, an alluminium pipe within a pipe. So the key thing we are doing in this month's newsletter is comparing the cost of putting different infrastructure industry's pipes in the ground.And this is our big question:-If the water industry can, for £25 million, install a 1200mm diameter steel pipe underground through 32km of the very terrain National Grid want to install powerlines across, why does the electricity industry need to spend around 30 times as much to complete so similar a project?