Wind turbines, cables and trenches: Is another way possible?

Is the idea of an offshore transmission network - connecting different windfarms in the sea

Is the idea of an offshore transmission network - connecting different windfarms in the sea before linking to the grid via one route - a realistic possibility for Norfolk? We asked for different views. - Credit: Vattenfall/Archant

With a decision due this week on whether a major East Anglian wind farm can go ahead, the industry and local opponents are as far apart as ever. But their dispute centres on one particular issue. STUART ANDERSON tries to get to the bottom of it

Within five days we can expect a decision from business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng on whether to allow the Boreas windfarm off the Norfolk coast to be built.

If he says yes, it is likely to also mean another equally vast project, Vanguard, also gets approval.

Map of underground cable corridors for the Vattenfall (blue line) and Orsted (red line) offshore win

Map of underground cable corridors which are planned for the Vattenfall (blue line) and Orsted (red line) offshore wind farms.   - Credit: Archant

Given his boss, Boris Johnson, has said he wants the UK to be the Saudi Arabia of wind power, the company behind both schemes, Vattenfall, could perhaps be forgiven for feeling a little confident.

But across Norfolk many are deeply apprehensive about the decision and fear the consequences.

Eighty five parish councils have written to the minister expressing their opposition.

Their concern is not about the construction of turbines off the coast, but the impact the schemes will have on land. An unnecessary impact, they say.

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To get their electricity generated by the farms into the National Grid, Vattenfall want to build a trench across Norfolk from Happisburgh to Necton, which would cross over another planned trench for a wind farm planned by the firm Orsted, to run from Weybourne to Swardeston. 

A worker scales a Vattenfall offshore wind turbine. 

A worker scales a Vattenfall offshore wind turbine. - Credit: Vattenfall

And critics claim that is just for starters. They worry more trenches would eventually need to be dug for further projects.

The wind industry say these are vital. Those critics insist there is another way.

They have been calling for the industry to pursue something called an Offshore Transmission Network (OTN) or Offshore Ring Main, which they say could save the UK taxpayer billions of pounds, preserve agricultural land and protect  the environment, as the act of digging trenches in itself releases carbon.

Ray Pearce, who lives close to where cabling from the wind farm would go underground . Picture: Ian

Ray Pearce, who has challenged the need to dig a new cable trench for each new wind farm project.  - Credit: Archant

Ray Pearce - whose home near Reepham is in the path of two planned cable corridors - says more than one trench not need to be dug at all, if an 'offshore hub' was built instead.

He said: “It is possible because Vattenfall do it themselves in the Netherlands. This technology exists, so I think they're being disingenuous by saying it’s in development.

"An OTN would be far more efficient because there would be far less energy loss using a single cable run. 

“[Vattenfall] are building barriers they know don’t exist.”

Jenny Smedley, spokessperson for Necton Substations Action Group. Picture: Jenny Smedley

Jenny Smedley, spokesperson for Necton Substations Action Group.   - Credit: Jenny Smedley

It is a seemingly simple alternative. But that, of course, is not how Vattenfall see it. Dr Catrin Ellis Jones, its head of community and stakeholder engagement, says it would take at least 10 years to develop the technology needed for an OTN.

She says that the Dutch wind farms Mr Pearce referred to were only third the size of those planned for Norfolk, much closer to the coast, and used an alternating current (AC) system - all reasons which made the system viable over there, but not here. 

"Another big difference is that in the Netherlands the government takes responsibility for the transmission, but in the UK, the developers do that,” she adds.

"So the question with having a joint connection that different developers can plug into is: who builds that first? 

“We need a regulation change and a huge step up in technology, and it’s projects like Vanguard and Boreas that are pushing that forward.”

The company has to convince the community though.

Catrin Ellis Jones. Picture: (Julian Claxton) CHVP and Vattenfall

Dr Catrin Ellis Jones, from Vattenfall. - Credit: (Julian Claxton) CHVP and Vattenfall

Jenny Smedley is leader of the Necton Substations Action Group, whose village would be home to a large substation Vattenfall needs to connect to the grid. 

She says the industry should focus their efforts on offshore hub. “Rather than building cables and substations every few years, why not build something much more sustainable - connect several wind farms to one substation that could be offshore on an island? Why can't they be pathfinders instead of destroyers?”

Wind farm Norfolk cables map

Vattenfall's map showing where the cables from the wind farms would go. - Credit: Vattenfall

One of the parish councils which recently put its name to a letter urging the government to delay giving Vattenfall the green light until an offshore hub was developed was East Ruston.

Chairman, Heath Brooks, said they backed the letter partly out of solidarity with places like Necton. 

Mr Brooks said: “We feel it will be an unnecessary upheaval because a ring main could have served the purpose. But they needed to get their fingers out some time ago.”

Peter Howe, chairman of the parish council at Hoveton, which also signed the letter, added: “Dealing with the problem out at sea rather than disrupting people ashore would seem to be sensible, if it can be done.”

Heath Brooks, chairman of Est Ruston Parish Council. 

Heath Brooks, chairman of Est Ruston Parish Council. - Credit: Archant

Peter Howe of Broadland Cycle Hire centre in the grounds of Bewilderwood adventure park just outside

Peter Howe, chairman of Hoveton Parish Council.   - Credit: Archant

Wind power: Why we need it

Beth Suckling, 17 and from Fakenham, is a 'peer mentor' for Vattenfall alongside her studies in engineering and other subjects at University Technical College Norfolk in Norwich.

Beth Suckling, a student at the University Technical College Norfolk, chaired a virtual panel of engineers.

Beth Suckling, a student at the University Technical College Norfolk and Vattenfall 'peer mentor'. - Credit: TMS Media

Here, she gives a young person's view on the importance of wind energy.  

"I think what we have to remember is there is a lot of consideration that goes into the planning of a wind farm and a lot of aspects are taken into account," she said. 

"To get a newly established wind farm planning permission can take years. I feel like young people, like myself have to stress the ideas of renewables more due to being on the cusp of who will be affected.

Vattenfall's offshore Norfolk Vanguard project promises to be one of the largest in the world. Pictu

Vattenfall's offshore Vanguard and Boreas wind farms would be among the world's biggest if they are granted approval.  - Credit: Archant

"I don’t like the idea that there are people that don’t support renewables concepts, because at the end of the day if you don’t support these ideas then you are not supporting the idea of saving animals and the human race from the effects of climate change.

"When you put it like that it can seem quite extreme but these are the consequences of us not making these changes or allowing them to take place and it is a scary thought.

"Not only this but the projects Vattenfall are building off the north coast of Norfolk is an exciting time for us as a county creating jobs and generating electricity and heating, with the rise in gas prices across the country this would be a great thing."