Kellingley Colliery – the UK’s last deep coal mine – was capped off this week, in reality and metaphor heralding the end of an industry inextricably linked to Britain’s history, and which shaped settlement patterns and development across the country.
Phasing out coal: good news for the landscape?
Fuelled by the coal mined and in turn fuelling Britain’s economy, the large power stations accompanying the industry have long been characteristic of Britain’s centralised energy system. These huge structures transported electricity through a complex network of transmission lines spanning thousands of kilometres.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced in February its plans to close coal-fired power stations that don’t have carbon capture and storage technology by 2025 - but only if there is the confidence that ‘new gas generation will come forward to ensure security of supply’. In addition to gas, DECC expressed support for new nuclear power plants. Renewables, which outstripped coal for the first time in the UK’s energy generation in 2015, receive little attention in DECC’s plans.
Closing all coal-fired power stations could have a positive impact on the English countryside, even more so if this goes hand in hand with the closure of the UK’s remaining opencast coal mines, which scar the landscape to a much larger extent than deep coal mines. But although this is a welcome step, DECC’s proposals for new kinds of centralised energy generation pose numerous new threats to our rural landscape.
First, the extraction of fossil fuels such as gas can adversely affect our landscape. To fuel gas-fired power plants, the government is encouraging investments in shale gas exploration in various areas. The potential surge in the domestic extraction of gas can have negative effects on the environment and the rural landscape: think of the increase in traffic during the construction of the drill sites.
Second, whereas coal-fired power stations were predominately located inland, new nuclear would be built in our coastal areas. This means other areas will be affected, and potentially damaged, by this energy infrastructure. As the construction of large nuclear power plants often takes longer than anticipated, this could result in a prolonged negative impact on the landscape. Finland’s Olkiluoto nuclear reactor, for example, was due to start operating after a four-year construction period. Nearly 11 years later it is still not completed. In light of this, should we be asking ourselves whether the problems around the planned construction of Hinkley Point C are only the tip of a much larger iceberg?
Last, but most certainly not least, new centralised power generation requires new (commonly overhead) high voltage transmission lines that are able to carry the electricity generated by such large power stations. Many of these lines could come at high cost to the landscape. For example, the proposed nuclear power station at Moorside in West Cumbria would not be able to use the currently existing 132kW transmission lines that are located in its vicinity, but would require new high capacity 400kW lines. These lines are currently proposed in the form of a long stretch of 50-metre high pylons in the Lake District National Park.
We are standing on the eve of massive changes in energy production in the UK, and must find new ways to meet our growing electricity demand in a low carbon way. Instead of moving towards new forms of centralised energy generation, could this be an opportunity to move towards a more decentralised energy system - one that favours an energy-efficient and countryside-friendly grid? This would be a system in which energy is generated close to the point of use, supply is characterised by localism and diversity, small-scale renewables are embraced and the need for new high voltage transmission lines is reduced.
CPRE believes that the result of the choices we face in meeting our energy demand over the next decades should not leave our countryside devastated. In our Warm and Green report, published last year, we addressed this by looking at reducing the energy demand in homes in relation to decreasing the need for and impact of new energy infrastructure. We also work on reducing the visual impact of overhead electricity lines, and we are part of the National Grid’s Independent Transmission Stakeholder Advisory Panel. Any expansion of our electricity transmission system must focus on sensitive spatial planning that values and protects our glorious landscapes.
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