A plea for common sense

Jane Davidson says energy policy needs less politics and more common sense.

The UK Government has an unusual relationship with energy policy and delivery. On the one hand, we have the most liberalised energy provision in Europe, with energy generation having been sold to the market two decades ago – mostly to other countries’ national providers; on the other hand, it retains as much central control of energy policy as possible. Its aspiration, as it told the Silk Commission, which I was a member of, was to have ‘a single market and regulatory system’ and a ‘unified planning regime’ but in reality that disappeared in a puff of smoke when differential devolution of powers to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales took place in 1999. Interestingly, in the fifteen years since devolution there has been no serious discussion about how to optimise energy generation in the devolved context.

This week on Click on Wales

This week on Click on Wales we’ll be asking what type of energy policy we want for Wales.
This comes ahead of the IWA Energy Summit 2014 which will be held this Wednesday at Butetown Community Centre, Loudon Square, Cardiff.

The four countries of the UK now have very different energy consenting powers. Scotland has seized the opportunity with a clear policy focused on renewable energy, using its consenting powers and the ability to offer Renewable Obligation Certificates to developers. It has ambitions to be providing 100% carbon neutral energy by 2020 and already produces 26.9% of the UK’s renewable energy.

Wales by contrast only produces a 7.9% contribution. It has the least logical energy settlement of the four countries and there are probably only a handful of people outside politics who know that Wales’ energy powers are up to 50 megawatts on land (about 10 big turbines) and only 1 megawatt at sea (not even a demonstration project) unless the applicant has chanced upon the rather cumbersome Transport and Works Act where any project of any size would fall to Welsh Ministers. The current settlement is complex and difficult and since the key driver of the development of energy infrastructure projects is a long-term and stable regulatory environment, it is understandable that the economic opportunities from renewable energy, which Wales has in abundance, have gone north to Scotland.

Energy is contentious. Every source has a negative aspect, whether that be visual (wind/solar), toxic (nuclear), contribution to climate change (fossil fuels) or untried (fracking). As I write, there have been two key announcements today; the European Commission agreeing to support Hinckley C with its 35 year guaranteed funding package and the Austrian Government’s challenge of the same on economic and ecological grounds to the European Court of Justice. Yet, as a society we continue to want more energy. Whilst we might understand intellectually the consequences of continued fossil fuel burning on our current and future climate, warnings about future supply shortages fall on deaf ears to a generation brought up on electrically charged technology.

As a commission, we were particularly interested in Welsh opportunities for renewable energy generation but found that whilst Wales has great scope to develop further its energy resources, current arrangements on energy consents appear to have no rational or principled basis. These are important findings as they demonstrate that not only is there is a major economic opportunity for Wales that could contribute towards the wealth and resilience of the nation, but that the current arrangements are irrational and require urgent attention.

What was less clear was what to recommend. Options ranged from devolving all energy consenting powers to restoring them entirely to Westminster, with changing the threshold of devolved consents or fully devolving renewable energy consents falling in between. As a Commission made up of all these views, we had to navigate our own way to an agreed outcome. Returning powers to Westminster was neither practicable nor desirable as Scotland and Northern Ireland would have retained their additional powers. Devolving consents fully to Wales was rejected largely on capacity and expertise issues. While we were attracted to recommending that Wales had total authority over renewable energy, we were concerned that it would be difficult to change the balance of generation by controlling only one type of energy. Finally we were all able to come behind the idea of a threshold.

The threshold of 350 megawatts we suggest will increase Wales’ powers sevenfold. Bringing most renewable power stations within a Welsh system was also the preference of the people of Wales, as identified in our public research. But probably what clinched the level was the opportunity to recommend that Wales should determine projects like the innovative Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project currently in the system. Wales has been an energy leader in the past and can be again in the future with newer, greener technologies, but until the consenting process is addressed, it will not reach its full potential. Perhaps the time is right for a little less politics and a little more common sense.

6 thoughts on “A plea for common sense

  1. The Silk Commission found that “current arrangements on energy consents appear to have no rational or principled basis” and then sought them replaced with arrangements with no rational or principled basis. The main reason for not devolving these powers wholesale being a lack of ‘capacity and expertise’ is surprising – and a new revelation (the Silk Commission’s only arguments against devolving full energy consenting powers were that full devolution would be contrary to the principle of ‘effectiveness’ and would raise problems in terms of security of supply [8.2.13], and it would be inefficient for the Welsh Government to take on responsibility for infrequent, complex applications – notably nuclear [8.2.13]). After all, how could expertise and capacity – in any field – be developed without the powers being devolved? Why was the Silk Commission happy to see policing – for example – devolved if a lack of capacity and expertise is the veto? After all, policing and many other fields recommended by Silk for devolution are currently overseen on our behalf by experts in Whitehall.
    Friends of the Earth Cymru submitted evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on the badly thought-out Silk recommendations on energy: http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/welsh-affairs-committee/silk-commission-part-ii-devolving-legislative-powers-to-wales/written/8425.pdf
    “The Silk Commission’s recommendations on energy are a significant improvement on the current arrangements, which are problematic for reasons set out by both the Silk Commission and the evidence we submitted to the Commission. However, the Silk Commission’s recommendations on energy – particularly the prescribed limit on competence of 350 MW:
     Have no logical or rational basis
     Are not based on any defined principle and appear to contradict every defined principle the Commission uses to justify its recommendations”

  2. You want common sense on energy policy? I’m shocked and I can only wonder why it has taken you so long? Some suggestions – no doubt unwelcome ones.

    1. as long as we have a national grid we should have a national energy policy and a unified set of rules for approving, costing, subsidising, and siting generating plant together with the associated grid infrastructure.

    2. scrap the Climate Change Act and stop basing any kind of energy policy on it before it scraps the UK as a viable industrial nation.

    3. go listen to Owen Paterson at the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s annual lecture on Wednesday instead of wasting time at the IWA Energy Summit on the same day! It’s entitled “Keeping the lights on”, and is focused on Britain’s energy policy. He will tell us what is really going on/wrong on the inside of government and will suggest some ways out of our current and looming energy disasters.


    To save having to write any more Booker has already done it in the Sunday Telegraph:


    Personally, I don’t think Owen Paterson goes far enough but he hasn’t yet defected to UKIP so I suppose he has to tone it all down a bit…

  3. John’s comments require no further comment than that from the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit: “Owen Paterson is a serious politician who has thrown more than a pebble into this particular pond. His policy proposals deserve nothing less than serious questions”. It’s upon reading these questions that you realise how clueless Paterson – and by extension John Walker – really is.

  4. Even comments about energy can be contentious – ‘Energy is contentious. Every source has a negative aspect, whether that be visual (wind/solar), toxic (nuclear), contribution to climate change (fossil fuels) or untried (fracking).’ So where does Ms Davidson stand on tidal? I imagine that, like wind & solar, it falls under ‘visual’, but isn’t actually explicitly listed?

  5. Wow this subject that across the last few articles attracts many “councils of doom” Solution finders are rare or sheltering from an onslaught of neigh sayers. It’s not all nirvana when you have consenting powers. Having worked in Northern Ireland with their nice use of ROC’s it looks tempting from over here in Wales. But this has to be balanced with very expensive energy for domestic customers and a lack of choice. It may be a ‘truer’ price but that can be argued. I am of the ‘build the plan’ and as long as its rational, coherent and has the buy in then the rest will come. We are far from being there. Compromise built on compromise is certainly not foundation for a structure to deliver a secure future…. and the solution? Make sure we crystallise what we want #thewaleswewant . No mater how naive, we need a starting place. You need this before you ask for directions and set goals. I look at my children sleeping in their beds tonight and think “I have to do something” simply sticking to this rail track of economic development model we have is…scary. Quoting the Telegraph and Owen Paterson is not a solution finder. This just sets the dye to cast an inevitable future… I will leave the scary pictures to you. Now go back and look at your own children and think!? IRR, ROI and NPV have no place when deciding their future! Can I afford not to something?

  6. 100% renewable energy can only be a solution when the problems of storage and distribution are solved. In the case of the UK, even if we think in terms of just Wales, this means enough energy to cover the situation of a fortnight with zero wind and sun, which can happen in mid-winter. Obviously this may not mean a 100% of the energy requirements as there may be other forms such as tidal or geothermal, provided that the infra-structure for them is in place.

    Can it be done? Well, possibly the Victorians might have found a solution, but nowadays with the all the planning and other constraints it is extremely doubtful within any meaningful time-scale. Even a partial solution involving any kind of proper energy storage and distribution beyond what we already have would be an enormous achievement.

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