Planning for Net Zero: developers ‘must think about their offer to local communities’

REPORT: “The transition to Net Zero is asking a huge amount from local communities; more than we have ever asked of them before”. That was the warning from Phil Watson, strategic energy projects lead at Suffolk County Council, in a discussion on Net Zero held during Waterfront’s Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects Forum.

He noted the need to build both offshore wind farms, with targets increasing from 10GW to 40GW or more, and onshore renewables, and gave the Bramford substation as an example of cumulative effects. Bamford  is the connection point for more than one major offshore wind farm but also had to accommodate three applications for 49.9MW solar farms, as well as batteries and small scale peaking plant.  “It’s a local cluster within a regional cluster,” he said.

Some onshore assets would be substantial, he explained. Substations for HVDC interconnectors – likely the largest assets – would have a footprint of 4.5Ha and be 25-30m high. As well as connecting GB with external markets like France and Norway, a nunber of  such links are planned to provide undersea  ‘bootstraps’ within GB, such as across the Thames Estuary.

He explained that to make the onshore part of the offshore industry work, “co-ordination offshore will lead mean six or seven key locations on the East Coast. The alternative would be a plethora [of connections] and we would start to run out of places where cables can cross from sea to land.”

Alister Kratt, chief executive of landscape architect LDA  Design, which specialises in the energy sector, said “a spatial strategy on the best cable routes and connections” could be the best way forward, including ‘hubs’ that later projects could ‘plug into’.

Watson welcomed NGESO’s work on co-ordinating offshore networks and their links to the onshore grid, saying this was “the first time they have started full consideration of an offshore strategy.” The Network Options Assessment process also had his support, but he pointed out that it was “technically driven”, missing the opportunity to seize community benefits and to combine that with mitigation, and make sure both were considered at an early stage. Watson added that developers “must think about their offer to local communities.”

Kratt also noted that “lots of onshore infrastructure hits designated landscapes” and he argued for the importance of considering ongoing development on local communities. “Good design comes into play,” he said and although current planning guidance was ‘long in the tooth’ it has useful information on that.

At the moment, he said, communities face a challenge because they have a series of applications. They are “constantly in a state of flux with new projects. When do they know it has a shape and an end point?”

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