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UK government threatened with legal action over offshore wind farms

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Communities in Suffolk are threatening the UK government with legal action after Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng last month approved two controversial wind farms off the east coast of England.

Suffolk residents had opposed projects developed by ScottishPower, the UK arm of Spanish utility Iberdrola, because of the design and location of the onshore infrastructure needed to connect them to the UK power grid. This includes a large substation complex in the medieval village of Friston, Suffolk, 22 miles northeast of Ipswich.

Energy leaders and some climate campaigners have warned that if not carefully planned, the amount of onshore infrastructure that will be needed to accelerate the rollout of clean electricity projects in Britain could become a new battlefield with the communities.

Earlier this month, the Prime Minister set a target to increase the UK‘s offshore wind power capacity fivefold to 50 gigawatts by the end of the decade, up from a previous target of 40 GW, as part of its new “energy security strategy”, designed to reduce the country’s exposure to volatile fossil fuel markets, including Russian oil and gas supplies.

But campaigners in Suffolk argue the UK government needs to take a more strategic approach to how all expected new projects will connect to the power grid – and where.

Suffolk Energy Action Solutions (SEAS), a group organized by county residents, sent a ‘pre-action protocol’ letter to Kwarteng asking to reconsider before seeking permission to seek judicial review of its decision to approve the two ScottishPower projects.

Fiona Gilmore, who runs SEAS, said the approach to planning terrestrial infrastructure such as substations and large cables is currently “very old-fashioned” as each project is treated individually, with no thought given to how the infrastructure could be integrated and reduced.

SEAS would like “hubs” located on brownfield sites, where substations and interconnectors – the cables through which electricity is exchanged with continental Europe – could be grouped together in order to avoid too many buildings and “concrete, monolithic” cables don’t mark the county.

He had proposed that the Business Secretary make a ‘split decision’ on the ScottishPower schemes, known as East Anglia One North and East Anglia Two. Gilmore said this would have allowed construction of the offshore turbines to begin, but would have allowed more time to rethink the placement of cables and substations inland.

“If your strategy [for onshore infrastructure] makes sense, then you’re going to get the communities to support you and approve of you and then you’re not going to be held up by these court reviews,” Gilmore said.

The east of England looks set to become a test bed for determining how much disruption to local landscapes and industries communities will tolerate unsightly inland infrastructure, given the large number of new energy projects, including interconnections, which are planned for the coast.

In 2021, villagers in Norfolk successfully rescinded approval for a large offshore wind farm being developed by Swedish energy group Vattenfall after opposing a new substation needed to connect the project to the network. The same project was approved by the government for the second time earlier this year.

The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy declined to comment.