Bringing Power to Life in the Forest of Dean

By Deborah Flint, FEP Board member and CEO Cinderhill Farm


Finding a site to move to within the Forest with sufficient electrical supply to run our food production unit has been a challenge for us at Cinderhill Farm.  As our business has grown, so has our need for energy to cook, chill and store the more than half a million sausage rolls and foggies we make each year.   It caused me to try to understand more about the difficulties there are in getting powerlines to some of the more far flung areas of the county – such as ours.

The National Grid describe the electricity network here in the Forest of Dean as being unique compared to other parts of National Grid’s regional distribution.  There is plenty of energy, but getting it to the locations that it is needed is the greatest issue.

As well as being predominantly a rural network, much of our area lies within Forestry Commission land - a busy working environment which also attracts many visitors.  The network consists mostly of overhead lines and poles, and a key challenge is keeping branches from the forest’s 20 million trees from interfering with them, to prevent falls from disrupting supplies for the area’s 33,000 customers.

National Grid’s Forest of Dean Team Manager Suzanne Park-Davies reports that: “We have a very reliable network, but trees can be an issue that cause faults.  So we spend a lot of money keeping them clear of our infrastructure.

“The Forest of Dean is the only place in our region where we use a special type of conductor on our 33kV network that is more elastic than other conductors. This means that if a tree topples onto them in a storm, they’ll be less prone to snapping.

“We have upgraded two-thirds of our 33kV network in the Forest of Dean with this conductor and can see it has improved the reliability of electricity supplies. We have another seven miles to do.”

Maintaining an electricity network in an area of high environmental importance with protected wildlife, such as goshawks, great crested newts and butterflies, brings an added dimension of care to any work National Grid does.  Some wildlife is problematic, and unusual solutions have been required to stop them disrupting power supplies. In the case of wild boar, for example, the company has deployed protective sheaves to cover every wooden electricity pole to prevent rubbing damage from the animals.  Because all pigs love a good back scratch!

Storms are another natural challenge to the area’s network. When they hit, National Grid’s helicopter unit offers a vital eye in the sky to find faults quickly, plus they can identify areas that need preventative tree maintenance to stop lines being brought down.

Investment is ongoing to future-proof the distribution network that powers homes and businesses.

In Lydney, new high voltage cable is to be installed that will improve the reliability of supply, while a line of towers that crosses the River Severn from the town are to get updated overhead lines in a project that will be an engineering and logistical challenge.

Importantly for those of us who insist on using renewable energy to run our businesses and homes, there are several forms of renewable energy here in the Forest of Dean that feed into the grid, including two large solar farms, two wind turbines on the River Severn and two 11kV biomass facilities, as well as solar arrays on roofs of businesses and homes which all contribute.

The company reports that it is seeing more demand to connect low carbon technologies to its network, such as electric vehicle chargers, although disappointingly, the take-up isn’t as high as is seen in other areas of Gloucestershire – despite our FOD Council declaring a Climate Emergency.

Suzanne Park-Davies, who was brought up in the Forest of Dean and has been managing its electricity distribution network for 13 years, says that supporting businesses large and small is an ongoing priority for her.  Whether it’s liaising with firms about planned power cuts to allow network maintenance or responding to unexpected power losses, Suzanne instils in her team the importance of good communication with customers – which we have appreciated in our business, allowing us to plan production around the outages.

“We are all locals in the team,” said Suzanne. “If a customer has an issue, we make the effort to speak to them in person, and that often means myself or a member of my team going to see them.

“People appreciate us having an understanding of their situations and that we’ll try and resolve problems.”

Positive relationships with customers have two-way benefits. When a power tripping issue at Whitchurch was causing persistent problems, Suzanne met with the parish council to enlist residents’ help. They were asked to report weather conditions when the tripping occurred and it became apparent the fault happened when it rained. This clue led to the discovery that the problem was being caused by water getting into a tiny crack in an insulator.

“Local customers worked with us and became a vital part of solving the problem,” said Suzanne, who summed up the Forest of Dean’s team ethos:  “We always try and put ourselves into customers’ shoes.”