They live in a village whose name means 'beautiful place', but say locals, plans to erect overhead lines, giant pylons and a newsubstation, are set to deliver "massive industrialisation" of the surrounding landscape.

After crofter Elaine Hodgson first became aware of Scottish and Southern Electricity Network (SSEN) plans at a meeting in Kilmorack Hall by Beauly in October 2022, she left in tears. “SSEN explained to us," she recalled, "what was coming down the line in the next few years to our local area. What we saw shocked local residents to the core."

What was planned, Ms Hodgson said, was “a very large substation, about 35 times the size of a football pitch, taking in three massive overhead 400kV pylon lines, with room for two more coming in in the future if needed. This is all in the midst of a beautiful green area on the way to Glen Affric, in an area with lots of small crofting communities and housing.”

SSEN's Beauly plan is part of a grid expansion designed to deliver renewable energy and the decarbonisation needed to combat climate change, and construct new powerlines across parts of Scotland's landscape as well as under the sea. Much of it is guided by Scottish and UK Government targets for renewables and offshore wind.

Partly, what she said has upset her at some of the meetings has been “the insensitivity” from SSEN staff, one of whom reportedly described Beauly as set to become like “spaghetti junction”.

A shift has happened in recent times. Though communities, it's often said, are increasingly on board with wind developments – they are not so on board with the pylons and grid infrastructure needed to transmit renewable energy.

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That’s reflected in an observation by Lyndsey Ward, a founder of the anti-pylon campaigning group Communities B4 Power Companies: “Some locals say turbines are attractive on a hill – they don’t mind turbines, but they don’t want to see pylons. But the two are connected. They are like BOGOF [buy one get one free].”

Ms Ward, a key voice in the fight against grid infrastructure is not a fan of turbines either. She first started campaigning against wind farms in 2011, when she was asked to help fight a windfarm from a French developer and has a record of beating back a few developments.

The complaints of groups like these are sometimes caricatured as culture war – but they are clearly about more than that. They are a reaction to large-scale physical change in a community’s immediate, and stunningly beautiful, environment, and to the bigger entities, the government and multi-national companies that deliver it.

Among the campaigners' core grievances are that this is all being done “to line the pockets of multi-nationals" and deliver "energy to England".

Pylons are at the heart of a question about Scottish exports, independence and ownership of natural resources as well as another that touches on collective global responsibility.

“Why are we trashing this landscape for multi-nationals?” said Ms Ward. "'These powerlines will be a scar on Highland beauty'. If this were all for Scotland, rather than multi-nationals and their shareholders, that would be a different conversation.”

A key issue is that the campaigners see the impact of grid infrastructure and renewables projects on the Highlands as, said Ms Ward, “disproportionate”.

“And this is happening in communities with dispersed settlements and few voters to worry about."

READ MORE: Offshore wind fears of 'further delays' on grid connection

The Herald: Lyndsey WardLyndsey Ward (Image: Lyndsey Ward)Electricity, however,  has to be generated somehow, and, in the absence of nuclear and renewables, that would most likely mean  burning natural gas and adding to the CO2 that is dangerously driving up global temperatures.

Human history has brought us to this point where there are almost 8 billion people in a heating world with almost, at 422pmm, 50% more carbon dioxide in its atmosphere than pre-industrial times, and fossil fuels were key to that. A question is how we as individuals, and our governments, respond to that.

Only this week, EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service announced that the world had experienced its first year-long breach of the 1.5C target to which the world is trying to hold. 

I asked Ms Ward, who said she is “no climate-denier", what she suggested as an alternative to the grid and wind expansion plan? Are there other versions of this expanded grid she might embrace?

Not, she said, certainly, another route for the pylons. “That,” she said, “would be like shifting the problem from your backyard to another.”

“If this grid is really necessary our first desire is that it would be subsea. That would have an impact on the marine environment and that breaks my heart. But I think we have to prioritise the people of the country. Is it people we have to look after? I think it is.”

What she and others in the group suggest is a whole other approach – one in which the wealthy consume less and energy generation becomes localised. Ms Hodgson called for energy generation to be “based on local needs”.

“There is a case," she said, "for renewables, but it’s how they are being done. They should be produced near the source of need. We should also be planting more trees and encouraging people to cut back on their use of energy. So many people use too much and we live in a culture where nothing is ever enough."

Ms Ward echoed this. "For a start," she said, “I think we should be using a lot less – especially the wealthy people who can afford their energy bills. Then we wouldn’t have to generate so much. Also, let the communities be in charge of what they do. That will stop all this massive infrastructure. I have nothing against communities having a wind turbine or solar panels, or their own hydro."

Fossil fuels are also not, for her, out of the question. “I’m not an engineer but I’m sure we can do it better than this – even if we stick with natural gas and do it as clean as we possibly can.”

But are these realistic answers to the problem of decarbonisation?  Would local energy work on a wider scale, away from these sites of so-called "renewable potential"  and at enough speed?  Could a city generate its own renewables? And could the carbon capture and storage that is failing to make good on its promise speed up enough to clean up natural gas?

The Herald: Pylons on the Beauly-Denny power linePylons on the Beauly-Denny power line (Image: Newsquest)

What’s clear is that the issue of pylons and grid expansion is a question of just transition. Some areas are being impacted more by the efforts to go green (just as some parts of the world are hit more by the ravages of climate change itself). Such areas are also frequently not seeing enough of the benefits, or at least they feel they are not.

SSEN has promised jobs for the region. “Our projects create huge economic opportunity for the north of Scotland,” said Christianna Logan, the network's transmission director of customers and stakeholders, “supporting 20,000 jobs across the UK, 9,000 of which will be in Scotland and an estimated £6bn in added value to the UK economy – with us actively recruiting 400 new green jobs across our team in the next year alone.”

There is also community benefit funding of around £100m for the north of Scotland based on current government guidance, and SSEN has committed to contributing to the development of 200 new homes in the Highlands.

But locals are sceptical about who will get those jobs and whether any of the promised supply chain or community benefits will come their way.

“They think," said Ms Hodgson, "they can pay us off with community benefits but there’s no compensation for the loss of a beautiful environment. I am deeply upset that the Highlands and Islands are being exploited by multi-national companies who care not a jot about the countryside.”

The Herald: Grid expansion is chiefly designed to deliver offshore wind energyGrid expansion is chiefly designed to deliver offshore wind energy (Image: PA)
When Communities B4 People complain that they are being disproportionately impacted, they are right. The Highlands and offshore areas are producing energy for those in more densely populated areas. On SSEN’s website, their Pathway to 2030 video frames the heavy lifting done by the North of Scotland positively.

“The North of Scotland,” it proudly says, "has potential  to contribute 10% of the total carbon emissions reduction required to achieve the UK's total climate change targets."

Many in the Highlands don't view that with pride. Rather, they see themselves as being sacrificed. “We’ve been thrown under a bus for the sake of saving other parts of the planet,” said Ms Hodgson.

An issue for the locals is who this energy is for. Among Ms Hodgson’s grievances is that “this electricity is to be transmitted to England and speculative markets elsewhere”.

“Why destroy our pristine environment in the Highlands to transmit all this energy to England and beyond? Why should our environment be trashed? It’s not about getting cheaper electricity. It’s about these companies lining their pockets."

The Herald: SSEN's Pathway to 2030 map

Scotland, as they pointed out, already produces more electricity than it uses. In 2022 Scottish renewables alone, for the first time, generated more power than the country used.

For SSEN, the consultation with communities is ongoing. A spokesperson fsaid:  “We’re continuing to work with communities and stakeholders on this, providing opportunities for them to help shape our proposals for this critical infrastructure across our network area.”

“Our infrastructure development work across the north of Scotland is part of a major upgrade of the electricity transmission system across Great Britain that has been independently assessed as required to help deliver UK and Scottish Government energy security and climate change targets. 

“We are still in the development stage of these projects and we’re working constructively with communities and other stakeholders to finalise potential overhead line routes and substation locations, and to implement measures that minimise and mitigate against community concerns, whilst taking into account other environmental, technical and cost considerations too.

“We remain committed to meaningful and constructive engagement with all stakeholders and would like to thank everyone who has shared their feedback so far, which will be carefully considered as we deliver these critical national infrastructure projects, that will play a key role in helping to deliver net zero and secure our future energy independence.”

Meanwhile, Lyndsey Ward, as she looks out of her smallholding home, isn’t clear yet how close those powerlines will come, but is certain she won't give any of her own land to them. “They can do a compulsory purchase of land. There are landowners here, including myself, who have said, ‘They can do a CPO on us’."