3.5. Opposition to transmission power lines

Prof Patrick Devine-Wright and Dr Susana Batel, University of Exeter

Significant investments in electricity networks are being planned in many countries worldwide, in response to the increasing deployment of large-scale low carbon energy projects. However, siting new transmission lines is often controversial, leading to opposition by local communities and environmental groups. We argue that efforts to develop new electricity networks will thus be extremely difficult unless public perceptions about power lines are better understood and integrated in that process.

High voltage power lines are potentially controversial in and of themselves, beyond their connection to electricity generation technologies

Research in Norway and the UK has shown that one of the main reasons for public opposition to transmission lines is the visual impact they are perceived to have upon the scenic qualities of rural landscapes [30] [31]. In the UK, rural landscapes have cultural significance, fostered by planning procedures that since the 1920's have been essentially restrictive in order to preserve the countryside [32]. Landscapes have therefore become "inseparable from English culture and sense of identity" [33], shaping public attitudes towards countryside conservation.

To deal with some of these challenges, in 2011 the UK government launched a competition and selected the 'T-shape pylon' as a new design that could be used in future transmission networks to replace the traditional A-shaped steel lattice pylon design. Devine-Wright and Batel [31] used a nationally representative survey to examine public preferences for different pylon designs, their perception of the fit between the designs and rural landscapes, and also their preferences for different mitigation measures of the impact of pylons on rural landscapes.

Results revealed that the 'T-shape' design was the most preferred – ranked number one by 77 per cent of participants, with another new pylon design ranked number two (13 per cent) and the traditional pylon design ranked number three (10 per cent). The T-shape design was also perceived to be a better 'fit' in a rural landscape.

We then examined which socio-psychological factors best explained perceptions of 'fit', and identified three key factors, regardless of the specific design. These were general attitude towards transmission lines; trust in the National Grid plc. (the transmission system operator in England and Wales); and educational attainment. Specifically, the more positive the general attitude towards transmission lines and the more trust placed in National Grid, the better perception of fit, regardless of the specific design. We also found that the more educated a participant was, the less likely they were to regard the pylons as fitting well into the landscape.

Key factors underlying perceptions of pylon 'fit' into rural landscapes

Attitudes towards power lines in general and trust in National Grid were key factors underlying perceptions of 'fit' into rural landscapes, independently of the pylon designs considered. If trust in network operators and more positive attitudes towards power lines are to be enhanced, it is crucial to engage with stakeholders, citizens and communities about why new power lines are needed, and try to understand their concerns about them and integrate those into decision-making processes (see also Case Study 3).

Network operators try to mitigate the visual impact of new power lines in several ways. We asked our respondents what mitigating actions could make them more willing to accept a new transmission line near to where they live. We found that using new pylon designs was one of the less supported measures – the top ranked measures were to bury the power line underground and to route it away from homes and schools.

Involving local residents in the decision-making process from an early stage was also strongly backed, supporting recent calls for earlier engagement with communities directly affected by power line proposals [34]. Finally, when asked about their willingness to pay for undergrounding power lines, around 40 per cent of the participants said they would be willing to pay something through their electricity bills, and that local residents should not have to bear the burden of the extra cost of placing a new line underground.

Updating pylon designs does not guarantee public acceptance

The fact that the most preferred mitigation measures were undergrounding and re-routing of the lines indicates that updating the pylon design will not, by itself, be sufficient to gain public acceptance. Additionally, involving local residents in the decision-making process from an early stage was also strongly supported as a mitigation measure, suggesting the need for genuine, early engagement with affected communities.

Findings from the research summarised here highlight the importance of taking a contextual, place-based approach to decision-making that takes into account the characteristics, concerns, needs and expectations of the specific communities to be affected. The research was conducted with representative samples from four settlements (three towns and one village) that were to be affected by two new transmission lines: the Hinkley Point C connection in Somerset, and the Mid Wales connection.

Different responses towards the power line proposals (i.e. attitudes towards the projects and expected local impacts) were found in the different places. To understand the different responses, we need to take into consideration the different characteristics of each place and how energy infrastructures are seen to threaten or enhance place-related attachments and identities [15].

The importance of local context

Public responses are locally variable, indicating the importance of adopting a place-based approach. To understand local responses to new power lines, it is necessary to identify discrete settlements or places and to examine local perceptions of how new energy proposals impact on these places.

Results show that members of the public do not need to be 'directly' affected by a particular energy project (i.e. one that is to be sited near to where they live) to be concerned with their deployment. This defies the often-adopted NIMBY representation of the public that presumes a parochial attitude to energy technologies (see Case Study 2). Our research shows that it is as important to study what people think about energy infrastructures at a national level (see Case Study 4), as it is to study what they think about them at a local level when energy infrastructures will be affecting them in their own 'backyards'.

Transmission power lines are both national and local issues

More sustainable deployment of energy infrastructures must be supported by both national populations and local communities. We should move away from defining those affected by energy infrastructures (particularly 'nationally significant' projects) as only being the surrounding local communities, to defining them as potentially all publics when conceived as 'energy citizens' [35].