In the Belgian North Sea, 25 miles from shore, campaigners hope they have found one of the keys to protecting Norfolk’s countryside.
It is a bright orange, rectangular platform, rising 45 metres above the waves. Called a Modular Offshore Grid (MOG), it brings together the power from four different offshore wind farms, before connecting to the coast. It means that, unlike in the UK, each offshore wind farm does not need a new connection to the energy grid, involving miles of cable trenches being dug across the country. Three cable corridors, each around 40 miles long could be carved across the Norfolk countryside over the next decade to connect new wind farms.
Campaigners point out that this means loss of farmland, habitats and years of construction and roadworks. The energy companies say the benefits - new jobs and enough renewable power for millions of homes – outweigh the costs. A trench could be dug from Weybourne in the north to Swardeston south of Norwich for the Hornsea 3 wind farm, built by Danish energy company Orsted. Two others wind farms, called Vanguard and Boreas, would have a trench stretching from Happisburgh in the east, to Necton, near Swaffham in the west. They will be built by Swedish energy firm Vattenfall.
Large new substations will also be needed at Necton and Swardeston. A third cable trench is planned from either Bacton or Weybourne to Swardeston for extensions to the Dudgeon and Sheringham Shoal wind farms. With the government wanting the country’s offshore wind capacity to soar from 10 Gigawatts now to at least 30 Gigawatts by 2030, far more wind farms will be needed, and Norfolk, with its shallow, windy coast, is a hub for them.
Campaigners and three Norfolk MPs say this situation cannot continue. Large new substations will also be needed at Necton and Swardeston. A third cable trench is planned from either Bacton or Weybourne to Swardeston for extensions to the Dudgeon and Sheringham Shoal wind farms. With the government wanting the country’s offshore wind capacity to soar from 10 Gigawatts now to at least 30 Gigawatts by 2030, far more wind farms will be needed, and Norfolk, with its shallow, windy coast, is a hub for them. Campaigners and three Norfolk MPs say this situation cannot continue.
This has angered campaigners who say National Grid should have started work on offshore connections years ago. Jenny Smedley, from the Necton Substations Action Group, which is campaigning against the cable trenches, said:
“We challenge being told this will be too late for the Vattenfall and Orsted projects.”
They point out that Vanguard and Hornsea 3 will take several years to build, giving enough time to come up with an offshore solution. But the energy companies say there can be no more delays if the UK is to meet its greenhouse gas targets. National Grid said the Belgian MOG, which has a capacity of 1GW is too small and has a different network connection to what is needed in Norfolk. But it can be scaled up, campaigners point out. Off the French coast, a second MOG is planned with double the capacity. And on the Dutch Coast, two offshore substations will be built by 2022 for a wind farm the same size as those planned in Norfolk - again meaning that disruption to landowners and communities by digging cable trenches is reduced.
Ray Pearce, whose home outside Reepham is next to where the two cable trenches will cross, has been researching alternatives for years. He has proposed an ‘offshore ring main’ for the Norfolk coast, which would effectively mean that cabling runs along the coast, connected through offshore and coastal substations. Each new wind farm would connect to that ring main, meaning no new cable trenches on land. But industry experts point to the timescales being too tight, a need to re-write regulations, and unknown costs.
Simon Gray, chief executive of EEEGR which represents energy businesses in east England, said:
“The government’s own regulatory regime does not allow it to happen due to the way in which we seek to keep energy production, distribution and local connections in different ownership.”
He urged the government to approve the current wind farms, which are going through the planning process, as soon as possible, while a longer-term solution was developed. He also warned that a ring main would mean much larger infrastructure for the coast.
Cornwall Insight, a consultancy firm with offices in Norwich, whose clients include energy companies, agreed. Managing director Tom Palmer said:
“If you were planning out the system from scratch you may do it differently, but we are so far down the road that it is very unlikely that this approach would be effective.”
He said the challenges would be to agree who pays for it and deliver it in time for future wind farms. However, the Dutch and Belgian examples show there are smaller scale alternatives to a full ring main. A 2015 report from National Grid found that there was no major technical barrier to building offshore connections to bring different wind farms together. They said it could save consumers a massive £3.5 billion, compared to connecting each wind farm separately inland.
But the report then went on to dismiss this as an option, saying it was too big a risk for consumers. Mr Pearce is scathing of this report’s conclusion.
“It is not acceptable for the industry to claim that this is not possible when offshore substations have been constructed to connect Belgian wind farms,” he said.
“Why are National Grid and Ofgem stalling on investing in infrastructure, potentially saving billions of pounds for the consumer, with far less impact on the environment?”
National Grid said it is listening. A spokesman said:
“We are acutely aware that the future growth of further offshore wind in East Anglia will require innovation and potential offshore solutions.”
A division called National Grid ESO has been charged with looking at offshore options and will report back by October.
Ben Davis, from National Grid ESO, said some of the technologies needed to create an east coast grid offshore were not yet proven.
“The approach we’ll need to take is much more challenging to develop and deploy (than the Belgian MOG),” he said.
North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker said he hoped the National Grid review would answer the questions over funding and technology. But he said:
“It is important that we still meet our net zero target and we can’t stop the progression on the current wind farms, but we’ve got this conversation going as quickly as possible for future projects.”
None of this can happen without regulator Ofgem, which has arranged a meeting with Norfolk MPs about alternatives. An Ofgem spokesman said:
“As a key part of our decarbonisation action plan, we are exploring options for a more coordinated offshore transmission network that minimises financial and environmental costs to the consumer while facilitating government’s ambitions for offshore wind.”
Meanwhile, the major energy companies are supportive of long-term solutions, but say their current projects must be approved to meet climate change targets and create new jobs in the east. Danielle Lane, from Vattenfall, said:
“It is really important that projects like Norfolk Vanguard are not delayed further.
“Tackling climate change is one of the most critical challenges of our time. Norfolk Vanguard and Norfolk Boreas are expected to start generating power from the mid-2020s and once commissioned will meet up to 10pc of the UK’s domestic electricity needs.”
She said their projects were already
“highly coordinated” to “minimise costs and the impact on the local environment”.
Meanwhile, Orsted, which hopes to build Hornsea 3, said:
“We recognise the importance of working closely with communities to minimise potential impact.
“The offshore ring main is one idea that could lead to shared infrastructure in the future, however more work is required to consider ways in which the offshore transmission network can be developed both sustainably and sensitively.”
Between them, Vanguard, Boreas and Hornsea 3 will generate enough renewable energy to power six million homes, according to the companies behind them. A decision on Hornsea 3 and Vanguard is expected on July 1 by Secretary of State Alok Sharma. It has already been pushed back several times. Hornsea 3 will have a capacity of 2.4GW. It will be located 75 miles off the north Norfolk coast and its cabling will come ashore at Weybourne. Vanguard and Boreas will be built next to each other 30 miles off the east Norfolk coast with a capacity of 1.8GW each, producing power for almost 4 million homes, Vattenfall says. A decision on Boreas was delayed by up to five months in May by the government, citing coronavirus. The industry has urged the government to get on with approving the projects which they say will give the country and the region a crucial economic boost.
The Secretary of State has granted a three month extension to the Examination.
During the recent development consent order hearings (DCO), the Suffolk Energy Action Solutions group (SEAS) brought to the attention of the inspectors the fact that Scottish Power Renewables (SPR) are using “gagging” clauses in their agreements with landowners involved in the planning process for their offshore wind farms, EA1N and EA2. These clauses offer financial incentives to individuals and groups to withdraw objections and/or desist from objecting to their plans. There can be no justification for making payments or imposing conditions which undermine a statutory planning inquiry conducted in accordance with public law principles.