‘Monster mast’ conclusions arrive

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UPDATED: Four separate panels of experts delivered their opinions on Tuesday regarding the financial and technical aspects of the now infamous “monster mast” debate, which still rages over proposals to build overhead power lines in the scenic tourist hotspot of the Hardanger Fjord.

No one wants overhead power lines running through scenic areas, but energy demands remain high. PHOTO: Views and News

Controversial proposals to build a lengthy row of overhead lines in the area of renowned natural beauty, to provide more electricity to Bergen, met fierce and determined protests last autumn from local communities and conservationists. Direct action and civil disobedience forced construction to be halted for a short period, and the ensuing political tensions – particularly between local representatives of the governing red-green coalition and their national counterparts – saw the Norwegian coalition government suffer in opinion polls.

Its dominant party Labour has since made a comeback, though, and support or resignation seems more likely to lead to the construction of the controversial power lines dubbed “monster masts.” Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported earlier this week that the prospect of undersea or underground cables was likely to be a far more expensive and difficult alternative. The underground alternative, according to newspaper Aftenposten, would also require a new series of evaluations, applications and approvals in order to go ahead.

Higher costs confirmed
These issues  were confirmed by today’s figures: Undersea cables will cost around NOK 3.4 billion more than the original proposition and take five to 10 years longer to complete than the proposed NOK 1.1 billion overhead power lines (which would be completed in 2012. A member of one of the four panels suggested that if the need for undersea and underground cables was seen as a “national common good,” the increased cost would amount to 90 kroner per Norwegian household for 35 year. If defined as a “regional common good,” it would cost the people of the surrounding area around 1000 kroner per household for 35 years. Furthermore, if subsea cables become viable for all other planned projects as a result, the cost nationally would rise to around 730 kroner per household for 35 years.

Beyond the cost implications of ocean cables, another of the four committees underlined the potential environmental encroachments caused by bringing the cables from the ocean floor to the land above. They noted that while the ocean cable alternative would not affect biodiversity in the region, the steep drops between the land and water would be exposed to landslides – indeed, there are areas where the sheer vertical drop from land to the ocean floor is around 800 meters. Another committee found that the alternatives were not as secure in terms of operation and supply as the overhead power lines, while the remaining committee suggested measures would need to be taken to ensure sufficient energy supply during the longer period of construction necessary for the ocean cables. Nevertheless, this committee stopped short of predicting an energy crisis in the affected region.

Many commentators believe that the government now enjoys a far calmer political environment in which to make further decisions than the one it encountered last summer and autumn. Part of this has to do with the lack of viable alternatives, and fears over the financial, technical and environmental desirability of underground cables.

Hearing next week
One of the main factors pointed to by most is the extremely cold winter that’s been gripping Norwegians, with attendant increases in electricity bills and, in some places, threats of local rationing of power to avoid shortages. Further dialogue between local concerned groups and government has also been thought to have dampened the level of protest.

The government will hold a hearing on February 10 to discuss the issue, after which a final decision is promised “as soon as possible.” Opposition politicians were dismissing Tuesday’s reports as a ploy, believing the government already has made up its mind to build the overhead power lines.

In anticipation of a firm decision, one Labour Party member of the parliament’s energy and environment committee, Torstein Rudihagen, said he would support underground and undersea cables if they led to technical advances that could be utilized elsewhere, regardless of the cost involved. Nevertheless, he said “it would surprise me” if this were to happen.

Views and News from Norway/Aled-Dilwyn Fisher
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