Earth, wind and power

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14 August 2013


Satisfying our energy demand comes with side effects. As the government pushes on with incentives on new energy sources, it brings community conflict and home buying risk as their impacts are felt on the ground. Marshall King, Chief Executive at SearchFlow, assesses the impacts and what it means for conveyancers’ due diligence.

The UK is hungry for energy. Its population growth demands more resources at a time when it must reduce its dependency on coal, rapidly dwindling North Sea oil and imported energy. With commitments to achieve a 15% clean energy target by 2020, the Government has been exploring all avenues to reap the energy harvest available.

We live in the windiest place in Europe and large scale offshore arrays have already been established. This is not enough to meet our renewable wind targets and there are now multiple planning applications in targeted areas where there are fewer planning restrictions. Northamptonshire is a key hub for wind farm applications at the moment. It is popular with developers as the county has very few environmental designations (e.g. sites of special scientific interest), historic designations or lower level flight paths, relative to others.

There are some 20 applications totalling 159 turbines in a 20 mile radius of Northampton. The M1 Wind Farm proposal has 9 turbines at 90m in height, with the argument that there is already man made intrusion from the motorway, why not just add to it? Other proposals, such as that in the Haversham, impact directly on the fabric of the village. 5 turbines are proposed at 127m high – the height of the London Eye – and will also be seen across all of Milton Keynes in a 24km radius.

The Government knows this is a middle England vote loser and is giving back power to communities to block wind farm development but in return for a five-fold rise in benefits in local area if they agree. The subsidies, worth about £100,000 a year from a medium-sized farm, could be used to reduce energy bills. It could also provide much needed funds for parish councils, charities or community groups. A valuable carrot, but will it be enough to overcome the NIMBYs and avoid blight to properties on the market while uncertainty continues? I suspect the latter could prevail.

The same applies to electricity pylons. Living near one is not considered desirable. Concerns continue about electromagnetic radiation that could lead to childhood leukaemia or increased dementia, but these have yet to be proven.

An estimated 150,000 Britons live within 165ft of electricity pylons and recent research at the University of Bern has identified stronger links with elevated rates of dementia.  National Grid, which manages the network, has stated that putting high-voltage cables underground poses different risks and is prohibitively expensive. They recognise that there may be some health impacts but states that the balance of evidence still points away from harm.

Ironically, the residents of Richborough in East Kent, who celebrated removing the eyesore of two old cooling towers last year, are now contending with the prospect of a new power link from Belgium.  The Nemo Link, as it is called, will lay high voltage electricity cables under the sea, improving the link between UK and European electricity generation. It will then connect to about 70 new pylons each the height of 11 double decker buses, which will cut through the countryside on one of two proposed routes.

National Grid says the pylons are needed because they have to carry double the voltage of the existing line, while villagers are up in arms at the impact it will have on the unspoilt landscape between Sandwich and Canterbury.

The visual proximity of tall pylons and power lines strung across rural vistas and the audible crackle from them could well be enough to put many off buying a home. This could lock down communities from being able to move or suffer loss in the value of their properties – a risk that conveyancers will surely need to be alive to on behalf of their clients.

Another energy battleground, and one the Government seems determined to win the fight, is the more controversial subject of shale gas and its process to get it out of the ground – Fracking.

George Osborne has announced a comprehensive incentive package to get shale gas exploration and extraction underway – streamlining operator permits and world leading tax breaks.  The rewards for doing this appear to be great.

The latest British Geological Survey (BGS) analysis suggests that there are far greater shale gas reserves under UK soil than previously thought. In the North of England alone, there could be as much as 1300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, of which roughly 10% would be recoverable. The UK consumes some 3 trillion cubic feet of gas a year, meaning that we could easily be self sufficient for decades to come.

“Fracking” is a necessarily invasive process. Shale deposits have lain for millions of years under high pressure many kilometres below ground. By injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into boreholes, fissures are created in horizontal shafts and the gas is released to be captured and stored.

The US experience is what is causing the concern. Already a very mature industry, there are over a million fracking wells across the US. They have spread almost uncontained because the rights to drill for shale gas extend to the landowner to exploit.  The wells themselves are vast, 20 or 30 of them extending a mile and half in two directions underground.

Concerns exist about the, as yet unproven, stories of damaged wells leaking a cocktail of chemicals into the groundwater. A recent investigation in Pennsylvania identified that residents within a 3 mile radius of the wells had elevated levels of methane that had escaped into the water supply.

The UK experience should be far more controlled, more planned and more restrictive. To start with, there are already pre-defined licenced blocks issued to specific exploration companies and their activities are highly regulated. The wells themselves will be subject to stringent standards before, during and crucially after use. Also, the contents of the fracking chemicals will need to be revealed by every drilling company so that it is utterly transparent to the local authority and the Environment Agency.

Shale gas has transformed the US energy market with cheap plentiful gas.  There could also be significant benefits to local UK communities, with the latest offers by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) offering £100,000 per fracked well and 1% of the revenues generated.  Communities would decide how the cash was spent.

The BGS recently declared fracking as “safe” providing the wells had a high degree of integrity before and after drilling. However, they think more research is required into the relationship between fractured wells and aquifers, which the south of England relies on for 70% of its drinking water.

What are certain are the human reactions to this in their backyard, which are understandably not great. So where are the battlegrounds likely to be? Aside from the Fylde Valley on Lancashire, other licenced block areas can be found in Leicestershire, East Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Dorset, north of Winchester and across the South Downs to the Weald of Sussex and West Kent. Significant opposition is already well underway at high profile sites like Balcombe, West Sussex, which will start exploration soon. The BGS, which was involved in the latest shale gas estimates, is examining the Weald basin in the South East, where protest is spreading.

The fear of fracking is strong because it is focussed on areas previously unaffected by mining or past industrial activity that could cause an environmental or planning risk.

Homebuyers will be concerned to understand the current and future impact of energy installations as their presence becomes increasingly felt in proximity to their proposed home. These are significant planning issues that are not automatically addressed by standard searches. Prospective energy installations are something conveyancers are now advising their clients on and new reports can easily be obtained from search companies such as SearchFlow for a modest fee.  This bridges an important gap in the property data market as these issues are as relevant as environmental and flooding risks that could affect their client’s decision to proceed to exchange.

 

 

 



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