High tension headache

Although no one disputes that the Algarve desperately needs a second power supply network, controversy continues to surround the proposed route for the high-tension pylons set to connect Tunes and Estói.

Despite the fact that local residents, câmaras and freguesias’ presidents strongly oppose the northern route, it has now been officially approved by the Minister for Urban Affairs and the Environment, Amílcar Theias, the National Electricity Network (REN) and by the Environmental Impact Association (DIA).

Theias, the General Forestry Commission (DGF) and Artur Lourenço from REN claim that the southern route, which would have run along the side of the Via do Infante motorway, is too dangerous. They claim that the pylons would have made it difficult for fire fighters and helicopters to reach the motorway and nearby countryside if a fire were to break out in the location.

However, environmentalists and local câmara presidents are against the northern route, claiming that, not only is it more expensive, there could be dire health and safety consequences. Environmentalists are particularly concerned that 62 per cent of the northern route will cross conservation areas, as opposed to only 12 per cent of the southern route.

If the current northern route is built, a total of 31km of the high-tension power line will pass through two Rede Natura 2000 conservation areas, which are home to 103 species of birds and 29 species of mammals. Of these, nine are endangered, including the Iberian Lynx.

Local politicians agree. “I strongly oppose the northern route. Not only will it cost much more, because it involves more pylons, it will cross through protected areas. If a pylon malfunctions, it could provoke a forest fire,” São Brás de Alportel Câmara President, António Eusébio, explained to The Resident reporter Nikki Hall.

And it seems that officials from REN are also aware that the northern route could have a negative impact. Artur Lourenço from REN explained: “Although the southern route is out of the picture and the northern route has been approved, it is not yet licensed and its course might still change.”

Underground pylons

Local residents have long asked why the pylons cannot be placed underground. To clarify the situation, Lourenço explained: “In order for the pylons to be placed underground, more than 50km would have to be buried and no country in the world has more than 12km of buried cable. It isn’t impossible in theory, but, in practice, it is.” He also explained that subterranean power lines are more dangerous than the overhead alternative. “They are like bombs,” he revealed. Lourenço went on to explain that because of the danger, there would have to be a four metre exclusion zone around the buried network, which would mean that trees would have to be cut back. And if a problem did occur and the cable exploded, the outcome would be devastating. “All of the region’s electricity will run through this cable. That’s a lot of power. If it were to blow up, the result could be very destructive. For example, there was a situation in Madrid when their subterranean power supply exploded. That day, 20 houses blew up and several people were severely injured.

People are only aware that the Algarve would look much better if the pylons were to be placed underground, but they overlook the serious consequences that this may bring. I personally think it is better for these pylons be placed on land, rather than people suffering from serious health problems for a more scenic view.”

Health issues

While residents might be willing to forego an underground electricity supply on the basis of safety, what about the medical implications of living near an overhead pylon?

According to The Resident specialist health writer, Dr Eva Jacobsen, those who will have to live close to the pylons are likely to suffer from health problems due to the electromagnetic field they create. “The human brain and body has an electrochemical system, which is influenced by the electromagnetic field. Research has found that living close to power lines increases the risk of cancer by as much as three to four times. They can also result in depression, a compromised immune system, chronic stress, headaches, memory loss, insomnia and can even provoke suicide,” Dr Jacobsen explained.

However, Lourenço believes that local people’s health would be more at risk if REN built an underground cable. “The buried cables may be only two metres from a person’s stomach as opposed to the four metre distance from a land pylon,” he commented.

The future

If the northern route is licensed, as seems likely, the worst hit region will be São Brás de Alportel. Although it is one of the smallest regions of the Algarve, São Brás already has four high and medium tension pylons in the area. For this reason, António Eusébio has pleaded with other local câmaras and freguesias to protest against the northern route. Lourenço, however, remains unsympathetic, saying: “At the rate the Algarve is growing, more and more pylons are going to have to cross over the region in the near future. It’s a fact of life.”