Overcoming Welsh energy constipation

John Osmond says we need a policy step change and leadership if we are to meet our renewable targets

The most memorable statement to emerge from a joint conference we held with RenewableUK Cymru in the Senedd yesterday on progress Wales is making on renewable energy generation included the word ‘constipation’. Admittedly the message came from someone involved in the Welsh renewable industry and was directed at Powys County Council’s stubborn opposition to every planning application for wind development that crosses its door. But the thought crossed my mind that the word could just as well be applied to the whole of Wales’s efforts in meeting its renewable aspirations.

The conference saw the launch of a new report from the Cardiff Business School on the Economic Opportunities for Wales from Future Onshore Wind Development. These are significant, if not massive, but on the past record we stand precious little chance of taking advantage of them.

In short, we are already falling so far behind our targets for generating electricity from wind power that it is heroic indeed to imagine we’ll stretch to meet the Welsh Government’s ambitious target by 2025.  By 2010 we had only developed 146 megawatts of electricity from wind power against a target of 800 MW to be achieved by that year. The Welsh Government now has a target of 2,000 MW of installed onshore wind capacity by 2025.

To meet that aspiration we would require to install around 120 MW of additional capacity each year. Yesterday’s report told us that the average increase in capacity between 2001-11 was a meagre 27 MW per year.

Our failure to get anywhere near what we would like to achieve doesn’t just mean we’re falling short in carbon reduction and tackling climate change. The failure also means that we’re missing out on a massive economic opportunity to increase our wealth in Wales in a way that’s compatible with green growth. The sector already supports 31,000 jobs. If we were to meet the Welsh Government’s 2025 target we would add £1.5 billion a year to Wales’ GVA. As I say that is not massive – our GVA is currently around £40 billion – but it would certainly help.

So why are we falling so short? One reason is that, compared with Scotland and Northern Ireland, our devolution settlement doesn’t give us planning control over major energy developments. Whitehall still calls the shots on all power stations over 50 MW in Wales. As Environment Minister John Griffiths told yesterday’s conference, this “split competence” between Whitehall and Cardiff Bay brings unpredictability and holds back progress in the Welsh renewable industry.

But it runs deeper than that. Another report unveiled at yesterday’s conference, Delivering Renewable Energy Under Devolution, by academic researchers across Britain and co-ordinated from Cardiff University, gives you the essential clue. It’s down to politics. As the graph below, taken from the report, reveals, Scotland has been in the vanguard in developing renewable energy sources, especially windpower. The graph shows England ahead, but that’s more a reflection of its larger size. In reality  Scotland, with just 5 million people against 53 million in England is forging ahead.


This is how the Cardiff University report puts it:

“Our main finding is that the political conditions for the large-scale rolling out of renewable energy have been especially conducive in Scotland, which is looked to as a leader of this sector from throughout the UK. This can be attributed partly to the Scottish National Party, which has long regarded energy development as central to the economic future of an independent Scotland. Importantly, however, the expansion of renewable energy is the subject of cross-party support, with key policy developments arising from earlier Labour-led Scottish Governments. Bolstering this political position is the existence within Scotland of major energy businesses: some an echo of the business structures created at electricity privatisation (and before); some linked to offshore oil and gas; which have been brought into the Scottish policy-making process (notably in the Energy Advisory Board), and broadly share the Scottish Government’s aspirations.

“There is thus a high level of elite coherence and consistency over energy development in Scotland, which helps legitimise and rationalise assertive use of the powers available, and reinforces – with the political leadership – a sense of commitment. Delivering on earlier renewable energy targets further reinforces government credibility with the sector. Also important is the policy framing of renewable energy, which is seen as central to Scotland’s national economic and environmental future; an emphasis on green jobs and growth from renewables for home consumption and in providing an international competitive advantage. Scottish Government opposition to new nuclear may have helped to focus attention on renewables, but the emphasis on renewable energy is part of a wider energy agenda which also embraces conventional thermal electricity with carbon-capture and storage.

“The simplest comparative comment to make is that one cannot find the same level of elite coherence around renewable energy in other governmental arenas. Statements of political support for renewable energy are plentiful, but either serious policy attention was slower to emerge (in Wales and Northern Ireland), or renewables spent periods associated predominantly with environmental goals (as in Wales), or there is a lack of an institutional framework that can give a full integrated expression of the benefits of renewables (in Northern Ireland). Consistent cross-party support is also hard to find: most spectacularly in the case of widespread Conservative MP opposition to on-shore wind (mainly) in England, and even where there is strong consensus in favour of renewables, the lack of a clear champion to drive the agenda may be a limiting factor (as in Northern Ireland).”

It’s not all negative so far as Wales is concerned. The report lists the following areas in which the devolved governments have taken the initiative on renewable energy, which contains a partial nod in the direction of Wales

  • The Scottish Government has led in using its powers to differentiate ROC levels to give greater support to wave and tidal power, while Northern Ireland has used this to facilitate small-scale renewables and anaerobic digestion.The Scottish Government has devoted much greater resources relative to its population on direct funding of facilities and research and demonstration for offshore wind and wave and tidal stream energy technologies than is being done in the rest of the UK.
  • The Scottish Government’s control over major energy generation and grid consents is widely seen as advantageous as a means of exercising closer control over delivery, but its decision not to follow Westminster in creating new consent procedures may have had some short-term advantages. Centralised procedures also underpin high consent rates for wind in Northern Ireland.
  • Although the current state of implementation seems conflictual and tortuous, it is defensible to say that the Welsh Government’s use of strategic spatial zoning has helped pull in a larger volume of on-shore wind development interest than could be expected in a comparable region of England.

But the overall message is that success in this field comes down to political will and political leadership. It’s been present in Scotland but not in Wales, or not to anything like the same extent.

At our conference yesterday Maria McCaffrey, Chief Executive of Renewable UK, said this was “the elephant in the room”. Compared with Denmark, Germany and Spain Britain – and Wales in particular – was way behind in the renewable stakes. And she added, “We need to get real. We need the political recognition that if we’re to make a long-term difference we need to demonstrate that Wales is open for business.”

One thing would show the world we were serious. Over a decade ago the IWA tried to persuade the Welsh Government that it should establish a Renewable Energy Agency with the powers and funding to co-ordinate the sector, establish supply chains, speed up the planning process, and ensure we meet the targets we set. Who could deny that if that had been set up in the early years of devolution we would now be in a much healthier state to meet our, essentially modest but in reality hugely ambitious targets by 2025? It’s still not too late.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

14 thoughts on “Overcoming Welsh energy constipation

  1. Unfortunately it looks as if Wind Energy is not quite the sustainable or cost effective solution that we have been led to believe. Indeed, only viable because of vast subsidies which, in the USA and other countries looks as though they are coming to an end. The news that the life expectancy of wind farms is more likely 10 to 15 years than the quoted 25 years is big cause for concern. But what I find more worrying is the degradation in performance over their life-span. For full details see the recent report by the Renewable Energy Foundation http://www.ref.org.uk/attachments/article/280/ref.hughes.19.12.12.pdf

  2. A good post John, and I agree, there was plenty of food for thought in the event, mixing in devolution with economics, community cohesion and politics.

    Colin, I’m happy to say that your concern over the performance of turbines is not shared by the industry, by manufacturers or by investors who are queuing up to invest in the sector (see http://www.edie.net/news/6/RenewableUK-slams-shorter-wind-turbine-lifespan-claims/23757/ for the industry response to the REF report).

    If you’re concerned about subsidy, I suggest you consider the OECD report which details the massive tax breaks received by the fossil fuel industry (http://www.oecd.org/site/tadffss/48786785.pdf) rather than the renewable obligation which will reduce all our energy bills in the long run.

  3. David Clubb – Bearing in mind that the report I referred to was produced by an organisation who are very much interested in renewables, hence their name, I think it does deserve very close attention. And I think the final comment in the article you quoted sums it up – the last sentence being particular apt in view of what has just happened in Bradworthy .

    ‘Speaking to edie, Constable claimed the organisation was “not anti-wind technology” and was generally positive towards renewables but insisted that subsidies to the wind industry were “counterproductive”.

    “We are very critical of an industry who we think is being very greedy and indeed are asking for much more than they currently deserve. They are neglecting the fundamental need to improve the technologies to provide a compelling alternative to coal for the developing world.”

    “The capital cost has got to come down and the technology has got to be robust,” he said.’

  4. The exchange here on life expectancy of wind turbines is most interesting, since the problem about the wind turbines we use today is that they are akin to the human knee. It is not necessarily the best thing for the job, but what we have ended up with.

    Oddly enough a late stage prototype turbine which addresses these shortfalls (it is also more efficient and is only 30-40% as tall, so minimising the visual footprint) is being developed in Swansea. The challenge – youv’e guessed it, funding.

    If the C-FEC can be commercialised, it may change the course of wind power in Wales and very much for the better.

    I would also like to see a real push to community owned schemes. This does the job in Germany, as long as you take insulation seriously as well.

  5. Scotland puts us all to shame.

    For you folks out there who don’t like change and live in the past and have been totally hoodwinked by those BIG names that were funded in a BIG way by the Hydrocarbon Industry may be you should sit down quietly and read this report so that you get the true facts about wind power — read on.

    It really is interesting and very educational


    And just in case you think that it was written by a load of ageing hippies please see who funds and supports the Centre for Sustainable Energy http://www.cse.org.uk/pages/about-us/clients-and-funders

  6. There is something here that is very important and deserves to be aired and makes an interesting comparison based on my own experience.

    We have a large rural comunity based organisation where I live and we are working on the greater issue of sustainability in our area, as the cost of living becomes more prohibitive etc etc..

    Whenever the topic of onshore wind turbines (or any renewable form of energy))comes up for discussion at any public meeting there is a group of people (the same ones) appear at such meetings and try to take the whole discussion over.

    We have all observed that these people are nearly exclusively not of these parts, have secondary incomes and/or private pensions and don’t have to earn a living in this hard pressed area. They do occasionally have one or two easily influenced locals with them too.

    We are baffled but just ignore them basically.

  7. Brian – I am not against renewable energy, whatever form it takes. I have solar water heating myself – I paid too much for it and won’t get any sort of payback in my lifetime, but that was my choice. But this latest report on the actual life span of wind turbines and their actual performance deserves to be taken seriously. Nowhere in the report you have quoted is there any mention of the expected life span of the turbines, so I can only assume that this was taken as 25 years. Furthermore, the report was peppered with the term ‘expected’ which didn’t fill me with much confidence. The current situation in Germany regarding renewables, subsidies and energy costs seems to be reaching a critical state and it will be interesting how it turns out.

    And yes – I appreciate that in hard-pressed rural communities the potential financial rewards are very tempting. But free lunches of any kind are hard to come by and the wider, long-term implications have to be considered. In our modern society which has been so technologically successful, we have grown used to the idea that we have some measure of control over our environment. But decisions taken locally are now capable of affecting the lives of people far away.

  8. John, whilst I take your point that £1.5bn is not earth shattering or revolutionary, assuming relatively stagnant or slow growth for the forseeable future potentially adding approx another 5% to GVA, from just one small sector shouldn’t be sniffed at.

    To put it another way, the report states that the sector will support just over 2000 jobs in Wales on an annual basis to 2050. The loss of 1370 jobs at Jessops, UK wide, recently made headline news. The opportunities are more than significant.

  9. Small scale wind turbines can be very effective in powering local requirements – the one at the Kielder observatory in Northumberland works brilliantly because of the location and the nature of the power requirements. But large scale installations are another matter and the variability of wind is a matter of national rather than local concern. I accept that a case can be made of subsidising local rural communities, but it is better to honest about it and base the case on actual rather than expected numbers – where possible.

  10. Haven’t any of you Agenda 21 types actually noticed what is going on in the real world? Rhetorical question!

    Firstly, the carbon dioxide based global warming data manipulation fraud has been totally discredited – there is no direct link between atmospheric CO2 and surface temperature nor is there any scientific rationale why there should be when the main actor is water vapour – so a substantial part of your rationale has been destroyed. Almost every week another credible scientist jumps off your sinking ship! I don’t know how long it will take our failed political class to catch up now they have committed themselves to this madness but there are signs that some nations e.g. Canada are beginning to see sense. The carbon based/climate change rationale for renewables is invalid.

    Your continuing failure to factor into your costs the requirement to maintain 100% cover for your planned wind turbine installed-output (for when the wind doesn’t blow or when it blows too hard) using traditional generation plant means your cost figures are bogus to the point of being deliberately misleading. The cost when the cost of back-up generation is factored in makes wind generation virtually uneconomic in all circumstances. The only rationale for wind turbines is subsidy generation – which has to be paid for by consumers, many of whom are already having to choose between heating and eating.

    Secondly, the Ponzi schemes and wealth re-distribution schemes dressed up as carbon markets are collapsing around your ears. The flagship Chicago CCX Exchange collapsed and has been quietly swept under the carpet, and now the EU’s flagship ETS looks to be about to collapse as well. That’s straight from Connie Hedegaard:


    The MEPs do not seem to be in the mood to salvage the ETS sinking ship..


    Deutsche Bank – generally thought of as an enthusiastic player in the carbon casino has just jumped off the sinking ship


    A tonne of virtual EU carbon dioxide is currently trading at under 4 Euros and it has been down as low as 2.8.

    In New Zealand the price is also hitting rock bottom


    and it is really quite difficult to see how a fundamentally flawed system based on a fundamentally flawed concept can be kept on life-support for much longer.

    Thirdly, as land-based turbines are forced offshore by public pressure – actually it’s closer to anger really – then the already over-stated performance characteristics of wind turbines will nose-dive due to the aggressive marine environment in which they will have to operate. Downtime and maintenance costs will soar.

    I do know a bit about this both generally and specifically – because I saw the corrosive effects which rendered a high profile renewables development project unviable when they found themselves unable to maintain the seals on corroding shafts. That would have been in the late 1970s and materials haven’t improved much since then. A similar fate awaits offshore turbines and the maintenance facilities currently available are inadequate to maintain the number of off-shore turbines in fully working condition. That view was expressed by the head of one of the UK’s leading renewable energy giants in a meeting I attended a few months ago.

    At some point this madness has to stop. I have nothing against renewables as long as they are technically and commercially viable. To date I have seen no evidence that UK based wind turbine plans are viable under either rationale.

  11. “Totally discredited”? Come, come. You give exggeration a bad name. The latest data cast the merest shadow of the shade of a doubt over the rate of global warming. They do nothing to throw doubt on the link between CO2 and global warming. The vast majority of earth scientists remain convinced that CO2 generated by human activities is causing global warming with a very high degree of probability.

  12. Wind turbines due mainly to their inefficiency, cost and damage to the environment, are wasteful and an energy system we can do without. Even Friends of the Earth told me once that they are the best green energy available at the moment. What sort of reasoning is that? Fortunately, as energy bills rise exponentially, more and more people are seeing through this massive con trick of the chattering classes. Free Wales of these monsters.

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