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Environmental impacts

Environmental impacts – Undergrounding in areas of outstanding natural beauty and National Parks

We recognise that caring for the environment does not just refer to managing and reducing pollution. Whilst electricity is a vital part of everyday life, the equipment needed to deliver it can be unattractive and visually intrusive. Unfortunately, placing cables underground for long distances, particularly in rural locations, is up to ten times more expensive than providing overhead cables. Whilst underground cables are less vulnerable to severe weather than overhead lines, when problems do occur, they can sometimes be difficult to locate and repair, so we have to strike a balance.
 We have five National Parks and 16 areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) in South West England, South and West Wales and the Midlands. We are working with all associated organisations to ask them where they would like us to put some of our overhead lines underground. By 2015 we expect to have invested up to £10 million in these activities.

Please click here to view the AONB Undergrounding Policy.

Please click here to view the AONB Undergrounding Policy Outline.

Environmental impacts – oil management

Fluid-filled cables - the design of very high voltage underground cables has evolved over the years and our new cables all use a solid plastic-like insulation. Old designs of 33kV and higher voltage cables used insulating oil inside the cable. Whilst these cables are normally very reliable, sometimes due to a fault, or more commonly when there is damage by third parties digging the street, this oil may leak out.  In total there are approximately 960 KM of fluid-filled cables that are owned by WPD. Like all electricity network companies in the UK, WPD works to an operating code agreed with the Environment Agency, regularly assessing the condition and environmental risk posed by these cables. The losses from WPD’s fluid-filled cables can vary from year to year dependent on the number of small leaks at different locations, rather than just single events, often caused by third parties, where high volumes of oil are lost.

Environmental impacts – oil and gas filled equipment

Much of the most essential equipment on our network is filled with oil or gas, both to insulate electrical components from each other and to cool the equipment as it heats up under electrical loads.
Oil has been used in electrical equipment since the earliest days of electricity and continues to be used in most of our equipment today. While we rarely suffer leaks from our plant and apparatus we do occasionally suffer catastrophic failures from lightning strikes, internal faults, third party damage and theft. We take our responsibility to protect the environment from oil leaks very seriously so do our best to prevent leaks. When leaks do happen, we work hard to contain them and in the unfortunate cases where oil does escape to the environment we employ first class leading emergency response contractors to contain and clean up any spills as soon as possible.
In recent years a gas called sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) has started to replace oil as an insulator in much of our switchgear. It has incredible insulating properties so allows plant and apparatus to be more compact and unobtrusive. If the equipment fails SF6 doesn’t pollute like oil. However SF6 is a very potent greenhouse gas so we carefully monitor our equipment for leaks and record any losses on a regular basis.

Environmental impacts – waste management

WPD recognise the value in ensuring that all practical recycling and waste recovery streams are identified and fully developed. Furthermore, in line with our responsibility towards the environment and our Environmental Policy Statement we are committed to ensuring that waste generated by our network is continually kept to a minimum and where possible diverted from being sent to landfill.
In order to achieve this we work closely with our waste management contractors; identifying new viable recycling and recovery streams, monitoring the amount of waste being produced and publishing local, regional and company waste management KPI’s.
We will continue to raise awareness on the importance of waste minimization and recycling, through briefings and campaigns not only amongst our own employees but also those of our sub-contractors.

Recycled aggregates

When we think of waste we usually think of used materials, equipment or packaging, however WPD’s biggest waste stream is in fact excavated materials from the holes and trenches we need to dig in roads and paths to lay and access our underground cables and equipment. Because standards around the reinstatement of highway excavations are rightly very stringent we can’t simply put back in the ground what we dug out. So in the past excavated materials were taken to landfill while new “virgin” aggregates were brought from quarries to reinstate the holes and trenches we had dug. This essentially meant that for every hole we dug in a road two more were dug elsewhere; one for landfill and one to quarry new materials. This results in an increase of quarries and landfill and is also very energy and carbon intensive. In recent years we have worked with Contractors, Local Councils, Highways Agencies and Government to develop means to recycle and reuse the material we excavate. Progress has been encouraging with some areas recycling over 90% of excavated material, resulting in dramatic reductions of waste to landfill and huge energy and carbon reductions.

Environmental impacts – energy use and carbon

Like most large organisations WPD use a significant amount of energy to ensure that our operations, offices and depots all run smoothly and efficiently. We understand and acknowledge that our use and dependency on fossil fuel derived energy has a major impact on our environment and the sustainability of future generations.
To address this WPD have made a commitment to measure and reduce energy use; firstly we produce an annual business carbon footprint providing a detailed account of energy use and associated carbon throughout our organisation, this helps to establish and identify future energy strategies and improvements. Secondly, we are actively putting in place measures to reduce our operational and business mileage, improve vehicle efficiency and reduce overall consumption.

Environmental impacts – network losses

Electricity is lost as it is transmitted along the network to our customers’ homes and businesses, and it can also result in greenhouse gas emissions. Distribution losses are the difference between the estimated volume of electricity entering and exiting the system.
We are working hard to minimise these losses by investing in ways to optimise and improve the way we operate the network. We are incentivised by our regulator, Ofgem to achieve an efficient level of losses. Each network operator is set individual targets that reflect the different characteristics of each geographical network, including factors such as the total size of the network, the amount of underground and overhead cables and the distance to each end user.

Environmental impacts – protected species and habitats

Our company activities interact collectively with all kinds of local wildlife habitats, and the animal and plant species which occupy them. We work in both urban and rural settings and regardless of location, be it a protected wildlife site or not, we are committed to ensuring that the impact that our activities have on local wildlife is kept to an absolute minimum. Throughout our operational region we work with local wildlife trusts, ecology consultants and Natural Resources Wales and Natural England to ensure that we manage our operations in a professional, proficient and ecologically sensitive manner, and where practicable we do all that we can to enhance and encourage further biodiversity important to local and regional communities.