This article appears as part of the Winds of Change newsletter.

The pylons were coming anyway – even under the recently departed Conservative government.

Back in November 2023, a report by electricity commissioner, Nick Winser, stated that to deliver the expansion of renewable energy planned by the then-government, an expansion of grid would be required over the next seven years that would be four times the deployment which had taken place since 1990.

But arguably they will be coming faster with the arrival of Keir Starmer’s new Labour government, and its acceleration of renewables and electrification, making the question of grid expansion a key one. What the Conservatives said they were going to do by 2035 is now being attempted in an astonishing seven years, by 2030.

Many questions come attached to Labour’s green energy plan – but a key one is grid. Will the connection be there if and when this government’s planned quadrupling of offshore wind by 2030 is ready to hook up? And is the public on board for that transition? Will there, by then, have been an embracing of the pylon?

The speed of transformation planned seems breathtaking, whatever the deadline. A Mission Zero Coalition report, launched a week before the General Election and titled ‘At The Crossroads’, stated that whether delivered for 2030 or 2035, the deployment of a net zero grid would require “potentially five times the amount of transmission infrastructure being delivered by 2030 as has been deployed in the last thirty years”. 

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Not all of this will be pylons. Some of it will be undersea cables, some grid reinforcement. But there will undoubtedly be pylons, and the strength of protest around these and other major power infrastructure, even if localised and only felt by a minority, seems likely to be a key issue in the years to come.  

Pylons, of course, are a hot net zero backlash topic, like low traffic neighbourhoods and heat pumps. It can be tempting to caricature these tensions as culture war, or echoes of past conflicts over the development of the super grid in the 1950s, but clearly there are reasons why people get upset when a big piece of electricity infrastructure pitches up in what they otherwise regarded as an unspoiled landscape – and these should not be dismissed.

There was no doubting the depth of feeling that was present when, in May, campaigners descended on Holyrood to make their views known over plans to run new powerlines from Angus to Spittal in Caithness. It is there in Beauly, where locals are fighting plans for a giant new electricity substation.  

What’s clear is that people are asking to be listened to. It's their landscape that is being altered in order to deliver energy south. But also listening is not enough – they also want to see changes in plans.

Some want to be part of a net zero dialogue, at the table with stakeholders. Others would just like to see the whole net zero project dropped.  And this is part of the problem – there are so many issues entangled in the anti-powerline movement, from outright denial of human climate impact to concern over biodiversity impacts of new powerlines or loss of tourism and jobs, and anger over who owns the power infrastructure.

(Image: Derek McArthur)
A new report published this week, Clean Power by 2030, noted how important grid expansion would be key for Labour’s plan. “There is little point building new wind or solar farms if the grid cannot transport the energy they produce. In 2022 renewable generators were paid £1.38 billion to reduce supply when there was more electricity in some areas than the grid could safely handle.” 

It observed that the queue for connection to the grid remained despite reforms put in place last year, and still includes “many ‘zombie’ projects that will never be delivered”. 

But also it called for the Labour government to “actively engage with the public on what decarbonisation means”.  

“Progress,” it said, “on decarbonisation is one of the few areas where the UK has been genuinely world-leading. But the current government’s messaging has been confusing. The next government should explain why this should be a national priority and the benefits it believes it would have for the public.” 

Part of this, it noted, would involve engaging “with the fiscal and distributional questions”. “There are critical questions,” it said, “about who pays and how the vulnerable will be protected during the transition – which have been avoided to date. The next government needs to engage with these questions from the start and communicate decisions transparently. The chancellor should take a leading role.” 

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These are strong messages. Who pays, not just financially, but in terms of impact on their lives, livelihoods and immediate environment, is key when it comes to a just transition. But it’s also important both that the government communicates transparently and that, at the same time, the public does feel listened to – and that is where perhaps the biggest challenge lies.  

The Mission Zero Coalition report says that “conversations with local communities must be bilateral, sustainable and responsive”. A big question is how to achieve this whilst creating such a rapid transition. It talks of “wider benefits”, that reach beyond just financial value, like “biodiversity, skills development, education”.  This dialogue represents an enormous juggling act.

But it is, perhaps, the overall bigger message that counts most.    

“Successive governments,” the report says, “have failed to set out why energy decarbonisation, and net zero more widely, will benefit citizens, or be clear about the kind of actions they will need to take. Actions and messaging from the Sunak government have been inconsistent, with policies pushing ahead with the transition while statements implied opposition to net zero.” 

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The Labour Party has been elected with a manifesto for rapid green growth, but it still needs to persuade the many that did not vote for the party, or did not vote on this policy, that this path is the right and necessary one, a fight of importance in a planet already impacted by climate change. It still needs to inspire belief in the cause of net zero, as well as that of growth and energy security.  

But it’s not only the Labour Party that needs to do that. It’s also the SNP, the electricity networks, the renewables companies, all of which need to show that a just transition can work, and that all of us will be listened to, and feel some of its benefits.