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What price to industrialise the north? – BBC News

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  • By Douglas Fraser
  • Business and economy editor, Scotland
Image caption, Large numbers of pylons are needed to bring electricity to the national grid

  • Plans to increase the capacity of the electricity grid are being narrowed down to fewer options, after local campaigns to re-route high-voltage cables had limited success
  • There is now dual government backing for compensating those most affected, at a rate of £200,000 per kilometre and £1,000 per year off your annual heating bill
  • That stretches well beyond £100m for the current phase of planned upgrades, along with £1bn within 33 years generated for communities from south of Scotland wind farms. So one question will be: how to spend it?

There is now some serious money being put on the table for communities affected by the new energy infrastructure.

Call it a bribe or a reasonable payment for disruption and spoiled rural vistas: either way, £100m shared by the north and north-east of Scotland, with a focus on a limited number of villages, is not to be dismissed as pocket change.

That doesn’t include the £1,000 per year that you could be saving from your energy bill as compensation for the inconvenience of a nearby pylon.

Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN), which controls the power grid in the north of Scotland, has come back with another round of proposals for its power lines through the north and north-east.

These run from Spittal in Caithness to Beauly in the central Highlands and from Beauly to Peterhead, with another line linking existing infrastructure with more capacity through Aberdeenshire and Angus.

The most successful public opposition has been in the Mearns countryside of Aberdeenshire, an area made lyrical in the writings of Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Two proposed sites for sub-stations are being moved to be closer to existing infrastructure, and the route of the pylons and cables is being altered.

On the far north line, the company is confirming an intention to build new substations at Spittal, Loch Buidhe and Beauly.

By narrowing the route options, it says it plans to minimise the impact on homes in Dunbeath and Brora. It will seek to reduce the visual impact near Dornoch, and Carbisdale Castle.

Two sections are down to a choice of two routes each, near Helmsdale and close to Strathpeffer. SSEN says it will move to remove or underground some existing cables. But protesters around Beauly have been less successful in reshaping the plans.

Green revolution

You’ll recall that Beauly has already featured in a long-disputed new line through the central spine of the Highlands and along much of the A9, linking up with the grid in the central belt near Denny. That took 14 years of planning, a public inquiry and construction.

It’s agreed by the industry and governments that infrastructure projects can’t take so long in future.

At Westminster, there are moves afoot to speed up planning decisions required to achieve the Great Energy Transition, and get power from wind farms to the cities where much of the demand is. The Tories and Labour seem to be on roughly the same page on that.

You may recall that I wrote about this issue before, when a new report about the south of Scotland estimated that wind farm operators in the region could be paying out a billion pounds in community benefits over the next 33 years.

A colleague went into more detail on the way that money is already being spent.

Image caption, The Beauly to Denny line runs along much of the route of A9 road

Since then, we’ve got more shape to the level of community benefits that can be expected. The Autumn Statement at Westminster last week included the chancellor’s backing for a report by energy regulator Nick Winser. That sought to halve the time it takes to get permission for infrastructure projects, including an outline for the way in which local people can be compensated.

The report’s recommendations cover Scotland, even if the chancellor’s control of planning does not. But it sounds like Economy Secretary Neil Gray is in favour, and similar truncation of the planning process can be expected where energy corridors have been identified in Scotland’s latest (and fourth) National Planning Framework.

“The Scottish Government has been pressing for changes to grid connectivity for some time,” said the Holyrood minister.

“Grid investment should proceed at the pace and scale required to enable the full use of current and future renewables capacity. Without this, the UK will not achieve its target of a net zero electricity system by 2035.”

He added: “It is vital that local communities and businesses benefit from all aspects of our green revolution and just energy transition to net zero. We have been calling for greater benefit for communities near transmission infrastructure for a considerable period”.

Skye line

One eye-catching bit of the Nick Winser plan was £1,000 per year off your electricity bill for ten years.

What is not yet clear is who would qualify for that: how close to a pylon or substation do you have to be to make that saving and could there be a sliding scale which gives maximum discounts to those most closely affected?

That’s not an issue for SSEN, Scottish Power or National Grid, the three companies responsible for the national electricity grid. It’s an issue for the UK government to decide, because it has to balance the interests of those most affected by the developments with the interests of everyone else, whose bills will have to pay for this compensation.

The community compensation bit is worth considering too. The going rate has been set at £200,000 per kilometre of cable, and a further £200,000 per substation.

This would cover planned upgrades costing at least £100m, plus those recently completed or under construction, including grid links in Argyll, Inverness-shire, Skye and Orkney and coastal converter kit for a subsea cable linking Shetland to the mainland.

Between more than 400km of cabling and sub-stations now being planned, SSEN reckons the payout for this phase in the north of Scotland will be around £100m.

Future windfalls?

The idea is that money will go into funds which independent trustees distribute. One theme set out by SSEN was “people, focusing on skills, training, and employability”, and the other was “place, emphasising the community and culture of the North of Scotland”.

The proposed structure was for roughly half the money to be targeted at communities directly affected and the other half to benefit the whole of the north of Scotland.

SSEN adds that it will recruit 400 people to get started on this work over the next 12 months, with the workforce rising steeply when things get ramped up.

As many of the communities affected have a shortage of housing, the firm says it will build or renovate 200 homes and leave them as a legacy.

It will also require temporary work camps, which it intends to locate – with the advice of local authorities – in the sort of places where serviced building sites can subsequently become permanent homes.

Will that help persuade the most ardent of opponents of pylons and substations, some of whom question the need for any such infrastructure?

Some may argue that 5% of the investment budget is too little for permanent siting of that equipment. There may be a call for a share of revenue or of profit, to keep the community benefits rolling and to share in any upside from future windfalls for the sector.

But for now, £100m plus £1,000 a year off your energy bill resembles a credible starting point for such a negotiation.

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