As communities across the county prepare for the impact of the infrastructure for three of the world's largest offshore wind farms being built off the Norfolk coast, campaigners say there is a solution to reduce the problems it would bring. DANIEL BENNETT reports...

Eastern Daily Press: Necton Substations Action Group are campaigning for an offshore ring main. Picture: Dan BennettNecton Substations Action Group are campaigning for an offshore ring main. Picture: Dan Bennett (Image: Archant)

The East of England has rapidly become established as the UK's offshore energy powerhouse.

The construction of three of the world's biggest offshore wind farms off the Norfolk coast will further cement that position.

With it comes billions of pounds of investment, the creation of hundreds of skilled jobs and, supporters argue, a significant contribution to the fight against climate change.

Eastern Daily Press: Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman. Picture: IAN BURT.Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman. Picture: IAN BURT. (Image: Archant 2018)

Yet, communities across the region are campaigning to protect miles of treasured countryside which, under current plans, will be carved up to make way for onshore cable works to connect to electrical substations on farmland.

Almost 11 years of construction work is due to start in 2020 and there are concerns over the disruption to communities and destruction of wildlife this would cause.

The issue has sparked campaigns, protests and, earlier this month, a debate in Parliament, led by Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman who said Norfolk communities have been left 'disempowered' as wind farm developers have been allowed to bypass local concerns.

Now local campaigners claim to have found a solution.

Eastern Daily Press: Energy Secretary Claire Perry said ORMs is an option that should be explored. Picture: PA.Energy Secretary Claire Perry said ORMs is an option that should be explored. Picture: PA. (Image: PA Archive/PA Images)

What is the solution?

Campaigners in Necton, between Swaffham and Dereham, are calling on developers to use an Offshore Ring Main (ORM), which would take away the need for individual substations and cable corridors.

People living in the village are facing the prospect of a substation which Mr Freeman described as being 'the size of Wembley Stadium' being built there by Vattenfall, to serve the Vanguard wind farm, off the coast of Happisburgh.

Eastern Daily Press: The Dudgeon offshore Wind Farm, situated just off Cromer. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe Dudgeon offshore Wind Farm, situated just off Cromer. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY (Image: Archant)

An ORM would involve each wind farm joining the same connection via a marine cable, which comes to shore at either end, and only two large onshore substations, as opposed to many individual substations like the proposed one in Necton.

Jenny Smedley, campaigner for the Necton Substations Action Group, said: 'The point is there would only be two substations, so two places will be disturbed but think of all the other villages.

'It's not been considered enough. People who want wind farms can have as many as they like and the county, the countryside, the peace and low light pollution which brings people to this county for their holidays will be safe.

'It makes financial sense and environmental sense. What we would really like is for these current proposals, and the Friston one in Suffolk, to just be put on hold until the strategy can be sorted out.'

Several concerns have been expressed over the impact that an increase in HGV traffic would have on country roads in Norfolk villages and Oulton Parish Council, between Norwich and Cromer, is collecting signatures for a letter in support of ORMs.

Necton Parish Council is also supporting the campaign and parish councillor Alice Spain said: 'We don't think the crossing of cables through the countryside is very sensible.

'We have been working with George Freeman MP on the issue. An offshore ring main seems to be the way forward.'

The proposed new Necton substation would sit near to the existing Dudgeon substation.

Colin King, who owns the neighbouring Ivy Todd Farm, is worried about the impact it could have on tourism and said: 'It takes away a lot of options for us. We were hoping to do some glamping up on the hill.

'There are five holiday let businesses all within about a mile. It blights the area.'

Why are ORMs not being used?

While local support rallies behind an ORM, the decision ultimately lies with National Grid.

A 2015 report by National Grid and offshore energy companies considered the viability of an integrated offshore design, but said that 'the project team does not believe it would be economic and efficient.'

A spokesperson from National Grid added: 'The rate of development of the wind farm zones hasn't significantly changed since the team carried out the study.

'For the projects proposed the most efficient way of connecting the offshore wind farms remains for National Grid to work closely with each of the offshore wind farm developers to provide the individual connections necessary to the onshore network in a way which minimises the impact on communities and the environment.'

Meanwhile, offshore energy companies say they are working hard to minimise the impact of onshore work.

Graham Davey, Vattenfall's senior development manager for Norfolk Boreas, said: 'We have listened carefully to local communities and the feedback has been enormously useful in refining the proposal and minimising the impact of our proposed onshore infrastructure.

'This includes adopting HVDC technology which means the cable corridor is significantly narrower than the HVAC alternative and avoids the need for a cable relay station.

'That feedback also includes a desire to see Norfolk benefit from our investment. We want the same thing and we will talk with stakeholders so that Norfolk maximises value from our potential investments.'

What happens next?

Calls to consider using an ORM were made by MP for Mid Norfolk George Freeman in an adjournment debate in Parliament on Monday, March 11.

He said: 'At the moment it looks very much as though it's a free for all. Each wind farm applies for its own cabling, its own substation, with the result that we waste energy, waste huge amounts of land, massively increase the environmental impact and leave Norfolk powered by renewable energy but disempowered when it comes to the democracy of those decisions.

'We are in danger of creating a system where there is hugely unnecessary levels of cabling and hugely unnecessary levels of substation infrastructure.'

Claire Perry MP, Minister of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, agreed that it was an option that should be explored and said in the debate: 'We are still in the infancy of developing these wind farms so I think it is absolutely right that as the sector matures we now consider the potential to connect adjacent projects offshore, linking them up as my honourable friend referred to as a ring main.'

Despite National Grid stating it does not intend to change the way of bringing the energy onshore, Mr Freeman believes another '10 to 12' wind farms will come to the Norfolk coast in years to come and campaigners hope growing pressure could force a change in policy.

READ MORE: 'This makes a real statement' - energy minister launches £250m offshore wind dealThe background

Offshore wind farms have long been a subject of debate in our region.

The issue is back under the spotlight with three of the world's biggest offshore wind farms planned to be built off the north Norfolk coast.

They are Vanguard and Boreas by Swedish energy company Vattenfall and Hornsea Three by Danish energy firm Orsted.

The Crown Estate, which manages the seabed around Britain, also identified East Anglia as one of five areas it wants to lease to offshore wind farms for the next generation of farms.

Over 50pc of the country's wind farms are expected to be built off the Norfolk coast, but under the current method of getting energy onshore each wind farm requires its own cables and substation, requiring a significant amount of work.

A number of planning hearings are soon set to get underway to determine whether energy company Vattenfall will be granted compulsory purchase orders for a stretch of land for cables to join a National Grid substation in Necton.

But concerns around the impact these onshore substations and cables will have on local communities and the countryside continue to be expressed.