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

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