Big controversy in my part of the world. The National Grid wants to build a new power line connecting Hinkley Point nuclear power station with its facilities in Avonmouth, which would mean huge pylons being erected across vast swathes of the Somerset countryside. Unsurprisingly, this has not gone down well with the local population.
Campaigners have suggested that the power lines could be buried underground or laid underwater along the Severn Estuary, but National Grid contend that these options are far too expensive. So, for the moment at least, it looks like the pylons are coming.
But is blighting our landscape with pylons and transmission lines really the cheapest option? Well, yes and no. It all depends on how we measure the cost. In purely financial terms, I have no doubt that pylons may be the cheapest course of action. And there are various reports and studies to support this.
But what about the other things that will be lost if the pylon-builders get their way, which which aren’t factored into the cost because they aren’t borne by the National Grid? These are the things that economists call ‘externalities’.
We’re talking here about things like the impact that pylons will have on the landscape, loss of habitat for local wildlife and any perceived or actual health risks to people living near the new transmission lines. If we could put a value to all of these costs, then perhaps underground or undersea cables would not seem so expensive after all.
If we are going to safeguard our environment, we need to identify externalities like these and try to put a value to them. Only then can we see the true cost of things and compare our options effectively.
Just because National Grid has to pay however many million pounds to build some pylons does not mean that this is how much the project costs. And the fact that nobody has to physically write out a cheque to cover the cost of blighting the landscape does not mean that this cost is not there. We need to recognise that externalities exist and deal with them responsibly. Because if we don’t think about these costs now, then we will be paying the price for many years to come.