Move powerlines under ground to protect from storm outages and climate change, says Yorkshire peer

Ministers should look to moving as many power lines underground as possible in the next two decades, a Yorkshire peer has said, to prevent rural communities from being as exposed to power outages from extreme weather and climate change.

Baroness Anne McIntosh of Pickering, a former Shadow Environment Minister, believes that the Government should embark on “a 20 to 25 year programme” which could help “future proof” this vital national infrastructure.

Her intervention comes as the energy industry is being thrust into the spotlight amid soaring bills and concerns about the cost of living, and communities in parts of the north of England are still reeling from Storm Arwen earlier this winter.

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Baroness Pickering told this newspaper: “In Yorkshire and the North East, we are particularly vulnerable because we need to build more and more houses, we need to generate more and more electricity and the wires taking the electricity to these houses to remote areas are bigger, heavier, higher and more vulnerable to climate change.”

An Openreach engineer fixes telephone lines near Barnard Castle in County Durham in the aftermath of Storm Arwen (PA)

She added: “Power outages could be a feature of the future because of the high wind replacing the extreme temperatures.

“We’ve got to future proof power lines.”

.“I would urge the Government to commence a 20 to 25 year programme to underground these pylons and particularly, when new offshore wind farms are built that they must establish a programme of putting the wires underground.”

Northern Powergrid, whose distribution network covers Yorkshire, the North East and North Lincolnshire, said around 70 per cent of their network is underground, and they have around 17,000 miles of overhead lines.

However, the firm say that in some rural locations, overhead lines are the preferred or even the required option because they are easier to access and maintenance can be kept up to date with less disruption to communities.

Last year, hundreds of thousands of homes across Yorkshire and the North East lost power to their homes for days when Storm Arwen hit.

The wind and rain, which arrived on November 26, left around 240,000 homes without power.

Power cuts were caused by a mixture of high wind speeds, debris hitting lines, snow and trees blocking lines and preventing repairs, and ice on the energy lines, among other things.

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There were 4,500 instances of damage across the networks, several times more than during many past major storms.

Professor Tim Cokerill, an expert in Efficient Energy Utilisation at the University of Leeds said there is a “recognition that something needs to happen” on these vulnerabilities, however there is uncertainty on the best approach to take.

He told The Yorkshire Post: “One of the things that the industry is just starting to think about is that with the climate changing, then we are likely to get more bigger storms in the future.

“And that leaves the small scale overhead cables more vulnerable in the longer term.

“I think there is a growing issue in the sense that the overhead supply is more vulnerable to the effects of climate change in the longer term,.

He added: “It's starting to be recognised that particularly in rural areas, there is potential for storms and things to have this big impact on the distribution network.

“It’s perhaps coming to a time when there’s recognition that something needs to happen.”

There could be a number of options available to industry, Prof Cockerill said, but he is “not so clear what the best way is” to fix the issue.

“You could strengthen the wires, or you could employ more people so you can fix them quickly,” he suggested.

“But then, you might have a lot of people sitting around for three years that don't do anything and then wheel them all out for three weeks when the weather gets bad.

“I don't think the industry as a whole is very clear on what to do about that.”

Paul Glendinning, Northern Powergrid’s Director of Policy and Markets said: “Our work to manage, maintain and invest in the region’s power network comes from the annual network charges which appear on customers’ bills from their chosen electricity supplier. Undergrounding is one of the tools available and 70% of our network, which has some 60,000 miles of underground cables and overhead power lines and spans more than 9,650 square miles, is already underground.

“Overhead line routes have to date been the preferred, and in some locations the required option, for network design in rural locations as they can be installed and maintained with less disruption to local communities and customers.

"Underground cables can only be installed where ground conditions permit, and this can inhibit their use in large spans of rural locations. The upfront cost is higher which means affordability is key when it comes to ensuring we provide good value use of customers’ money now and in the future.”

A spokesman at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “Our review into how energy operators responded to Storm Arwen will consider a wide range of options, including putting more electricity cables underground.

“This is so that we can ensure our system, which has had £60bn of investment by gas and electricity networks in the last eight years, is as resilient as possible across the UK, including in Yorkshire and the North East.

“Extensive plans are underway to address the risks associated with climate change and we are working very closely with the energy industry to ensure they are prepared for future severe weather conditions.”