Country Life's columnist Agromenes delivers a powerful and heartfelt message in praise of progress.
Britain’s electricity grid needs urgent transformation if we don’t want the lights to go out. It will be a real challenge to the countryside, because the improvements that are essential mean the construction of a new web of connection to provide the energy to heat homes, fuel cars and run all the machines that power our modern lives.
We’ve done it before — our national grid was once the most advanced in the world and the pylons that stride across the countryside made it so. However, that grid was the reverse of the one we now need — 20th-century electricity was generated in huge coal-fired power plants and fed out around the country. As a result, everybody, even in the most rural of places, expects to get electricity.
The electricity of the 21st century may be the same electrons, but they are generated and delivered differently. No wonder that the French called their old generating stations centrales. It described the system exactly: a central power generator sending energy out. Today, we generate electricity all over the place, through wind power from offshore and onshore turbines, through solar power from roofs and solar farms, connectors from France and Scandinavia — even nuclear power will be delivered from much smaller stations, more widely distributed.
We couldn’t possibly afford to produce electricity the old way. Coal, oil and gas are far more expensive than renewables. We may be decarbonising the system because fossil fuels are threatening life on our planet, but we have to do it anyway if we’re to deal with the cost-of-living crisis.
As does any revolution, it means fundamental change. The cost is not only financial: it demands we do things differently — and we don’t like change. We have to admit we’ve grown used to putting up with polluted air, we accepted that men worked in dirty and dangerous conditions digging coal and that huge power stations polluted the countryside.
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“Citizens must eschew knee-jerk opposition and accept that wind, solar and batteries are essential”
Of course, some changes are to be welcomed — the end of slag-heaps, pneumoconiosis, smogs and soot — but we resent the new demands: the turbines, the pylons and the transmission stations. From Norwich in Norfolk to Tilbury in Essex, rural campaigners prepare to fight pylons; all the way down the East Anglian coast, village action groups are seeking to stop onshoring transmission stations; from Yorkshire to Somerset, people are up in arms at the siting of big battery storage units and everywhere there’s antagonism to solar farms.
Yet this is where our future lies. If Britain is to make its way in the world, particularly now we’ve decided to go it alone, we have to compete. Our goods will not sell unless they are low carbon and our prices won’t be competitive unless our energy costs are low. We have to be leaders in technology and make the UK the prime place to invest in the green economy that is emerging as the only possible economy in a world threatened by climate change. The US, the EU and China have understood this. That’s where it’s happening and we have fallen behind. Only by fixing the grid will we deliver the mechanism for the new industrial revolution.
The Government must ease the passage. Undersea cables must replace the overland routes wherever possible. We need urgent regulations to guard against fire in battery installations. Local people should get cheaper electricity when solar farms and on-shore wind turbines are installed. Above all, Government must explain and involve. That’s not being a nanny state, it’s giving the facts that will enable people to make sensible decisions. In response, citizens must eschew the knee-jerk opposition to change and accept that wind, solar, batteries and their connection are essential for the future of the country and for our grandchildren.
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