By Andrew Hirst Published: 13:24 12 December 2019 | Updated 13:44 12 December 2019
Energy bosses have been accused of "serious mismanagement" of two wind farm projects leading to unnecessary destruction of Suffolk's countryside.
Substation Action Save East Suffolk (SASES) has raised complaints about National Grid and ScottishPower Renewables (SPR) over the handling of the applications - which they claim has necessitated the building of a large substation, which could have been avoided.
SPR submitted its development consent order for East Anglia Two and East Anglia One North to the Planning Inspectorate in October, with a decision expected in 2020.While the offshore elements - 139 turbines - are expected to produce enough power for 1.5m homes, SPR has faced criticism for the associated onshore infrastructure - an 18m high substation at a 30-acre site in Friston, with a six mile cable trench from Thorpeness.
The proposals have been widely condemned by residents, councils and campaign groups - who say it could lead to "industrialisation" of the Suffolk countryside.
Now, it has emerged the initial proposals for the wind farms favoured a completely different way of connecting to the grid - which would have required no additional substations.
SPR has claimed its connection at Friston using Sizewell pylon lines followed a review with National Grid, and would be "more economical and minimise disruption to the wider area".
But investigations by SASES show SPR originally submitted proposals to connect the two wind farms along an existing 22 mile cable route from Bawdsey to Bramford, north of Ipswich.
SPR had already built the cable route as part of the first phase of its East Anglia Array project - East Anglia One and East Anglia Three. The projects received consent in 2014 - on the condition the cable route would be built to accommodate 3.6GW of power, enabling it to handle SPR's future wind farms.
Campaigners claim this condition was in recognition of the need to limit future disruption.
Soon after, however, SPR applied to make the cables DC rather than AC, which, due to technical reasons, would also reduce its capacity from 3.6GW to 1.9GW.
Despite the reduced capacity, SPR continued to claim its next phase of wind farms - East Anglia One North and East Anglia Two - would also use the Bawdsey-Bramford cable route.
Minutes from a meeting between SPR and the PI in April 2016 said: "The applicant informed the inspectorate that the projects intend to connect at Bramford substation." Further meetings also referred to the same cable route. SASES's Michael Mahony said the documents made it "abundantly clear" SPR had told the PI that the Bawdsey-Bramford cable route would be used for EA1N and EA2. But then a meeting between SPR and PI in September 2017 showed the connection route had suddenly been changed, without any apparent prior warning or consultation.
Minutes from the meeting state: "National Grid has reviewed the projects connection options and is varying the connection locations; which means that the connection point for both projects will be in the vicinity of Sizewell/Leiston".
Mr Mahony questioned how National Grid could take that decision when agreements for a Bawdsey-Bramford connection had already been agreed in 2016 and raised concerns about "serious mismanagement".
"National Grid appears to be a law unto itself with no one seemingly being able to hold it to account," he added.
National Grid said the change in connection was made by SPR based on "commercial viability reasons".
But Mr Mahony said the "disastrous" consequence of this change was that new onshore cable route was required "carving another swathe through the East Suffolk countryside including through the AONB".
"This is the reality which East Suffolk is now facing, with the prospect of yet more so called offshore wind-farms to come aside from all the other energy projects referred to above," he added. "It is incomprehensible how such a situation has been allowed to develop."
SASES has continued to press for an explanation as to how the alternative cable route was agreed - but aside from a heavily redacted document on connection options, has failed to get any satisfactory answers.
"There has been a total lack of strategic, long term planning by central government, local government and the energy sector, particularly the National Grid," Mr Mahony said.
Minimising substation impact
ScottishPower Renewables said it had worked to minimise the impact of its onshore infrastructure on communities. The company said its mitigation measures for the substation, propsoed for Friston, include significant reductions to the size of the buildings as well as natural screening to minimise its visibility.
SPR added that its development consent order for the East Anglia Two and East Anglia One North wind farms had been submitted and accepted for examination by the Planning Inspectorate following "extensive consultation with a range of stakeholders".
Its East Anglia One wind farm is said to be "progressing well with over half of the turbines installed". "When complete in 2020, the wind farm could provide enough clean, green electricity for up to 630,000 homes," a spokesman added.
"Reinstatement of the onshore cable route is nearing completion and we have already installed the cable ducts for our consented East Anglia THREE project to minimise future disruption."
National Grid investigating 'best solution' for infrastructure
National Grid has said it is committed to minimising the impact of onshore connections during any future growth of offshore wind power in East Anglia.
A spokesman for National Grid said: "While current offshore wind farms are proceeding with direct onshore connections, in line with studies published in 2015, we are looking with our customers, the Crown Estate, Ofgem, and the Government at ways in which the best solution might be to deliver the vital infrastructure that will be needed for future offshore wind."
The spokesman for National Grid added: "We will continue to explore the options and are committed to playing our part in the most innovative ways we can to ensure we help deliver clean green renewable energy and the Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 that government is committed to - in ways which minimise disruption as much as is possible."
The region’s most prominent energy, marine and environmental science research centres together with regional business, are partnering on a new collaborative bid which will further enhance East Anglia as a clean energy powerhouse for the UK and promote economic and environmental sustainability.
The Modular Offshore Grid (MOG), is Belgium company Elia's first power hub in the North Sea. The switching platform is 40 km off the coast. By the end of 2020, it will combine electricity generated by four offshore wind farms (Rentel, Seastar, Mermaid and Northwester 2) for onward transmission to the mainland. This is more efficient than transmitting the power via individual cables and improves security of supply.