Re-energising Wales

Gareth Wyn Jones sets out more detail on the IWA Economy report recommendations for making Wales self-sufficient from sustainable energy


  1. There are compelling arguments that the solution to Wales’ future energy requirements, offering the greatest economic, social and environmental benefits and achievable on a time scale compatible with atmospheric-physical imperative of bringing greenhouse gas emissions down to 1.5 to 2 tonnes CO2 per head by 2040, lies in a combination of energy saving and the rational exploitation of our terrestrial and marine renewable energy resources; based on dispersed local and/or community generation, smart grid technology, municipal grids and local electricity storage.
  2. A preliminary examination of the data suggest that nuclear-generated electricity will not required to meet Wales’ needs but this cannot be totally excluded without more detailed studies.
  3. There is a requirement for an immediate and thorough examination of Wales’ viable renewable resources and of how to make major energy saving from the space heating, transport, industry and electricity use sectors. Such an examination must be given the top priority and not take more than 12 to 18 month taking evidence from practitioners in Wales and elsewhere e.g. Germany, Denmark and California and even South Australia where major progress is being made. An expert group should be established to carry out this work (not a commercial consultancy) but the group should have the resources to buy in advice/specific research/data correlation as required. The expense would be very modest; probably less than £0.5m.
  4.  A costed authoritative plan should emerge with broad backing.
  5. Assuming a scenario similar to that advocated in this paper is supported, the policy will have profound implications for all aspects of Welsh life and produce more sustainable local economies and increasingly self-reliant and resilient individuals and communities able to face international uncertainty.
  6. A start can and should be made using WG’s existing powers but clearly WG must be given full control over our country’s resources to reach the objective.


1.    International Context:

Western economic progress and dominance has been and remains underpinned by cheap, transportable, convenient supplies of fossil fuels. Historically Wales was able to profit substantially from its coal – a major comparative advantage for a century and more.

We now face the reality of global warming and climate change, exacerbating even more immediate threats, such as aquifer over-exploitation, nitrogen pollution, population growth, both absolute poverty and massive income and resource inequality, potential food shortages and endemic social unrest.  Consequently we must move rapidly (<3 decades) from a fossil-fuel dependent economy even as we try to meet the other challenges.  The evidence clearly shows that, globally, 82% of coal, 49% of gas and 33% of known oil reserves must remain unused. The current annual [2013] ~$670billion investment in hydrocarbon exploration must cease forthwith. Decisive international agreement to limit emission in Paris in late 2015 remains possible. However the recent plunge in oil and gas prices is making investment in renewable sources less attractive.

Numerically the size of problem can be summarised as follows. Current, annual global emissions of greenhouse gases amount to ~ 50 billion tonnes [Bt] [N.B. billion = Giga =10x9] and are rising (expressed as CO2 equivalents [CO2e]). Of these over 35Bt are long atmospheric duration CO2. Annual global GHG emissions must decrease to 15 to 2O Bt CO2e by ~2040 to avoid catastrophic dangers from climate change, although some experts argue this is too generous. Meanwhile the global population is set to grow from 7 to ~9 billion and hopefully an increasing number of our follow humans will escape from severe poverty. On a per capita basis this means a decrease from about ~7 tonnes to 1.5 – 2 tonnes CO2e each by 2040 at the latest; for comparison the current estimated annual emissions within Wales are ~16 tonnes CO2e per head.  These Welsh emissions are associated with a total energy use of ~98 TWh [T= 10x12] or ~4 kWh per head every hour of every day of the year [= to ~4 single bar electric fires]. These figures do not take into account energy embedded in imports nor most external travel.

WG is committed to an annual decline of 3% in GHG emissions under its control and is party to UK and EU commitments to an 80% decrease in emission by 2040 and other intermediate targets.

2. Welsh perspective:

A relevant question to Wales and to WG is: do we have or can we achieve a comparative advantage in renewable energy terms such as we enjoyed when coal was king, Rhondda its workhorse and Cardiff its queen? To answer this question I believe we have to include our water resources as well as other sources of renewable energy in Wales. Currently electricity use is only about 16% of the total i.e. ~16TWh but proportionally this will increase significantly as transport [road and rail] is electrified and other activities come to depend on electricity rather than in situ hydrocarbon burning. (A major breakthrough in carbon capture technology could influence this but the costs and sheer quantities of material involved militate against this.)

The first question immediately raises an important issue: do we need to plan for incrementally increasing energy demand or are we currently highly profligate and able to achieve a high living standard at lower total [not just per capita ] energy use? The answer to this must be YES!!  Germany and Denmark have targets for decreased total energy use. In Wales our housing stock in poorly insulated, but our sparse population makes it more demanding to provide cost-effective public transport.  So we are over-dependent on car commuting compared with densely populated areas such as SE England. A huge potential for saving arises from [i] less commuting, [ii] more cycling and walking [with added health benefits], [iii] electric vehicles requiring >1/3 energy input per km travelled cf. petrol or diesel cars, [iv] improving public transport, [v] better space insulation especially in houses, [vi] use of ground and air source heat pumps [vii] technological advances e.g. LED lights and more efficient white goods, [viii] changes in building and ITC technology. These offer win-win combinations of less energy use and lower consumer costs. Based on mainland EU practice, it seems reasonable to target a sustainable total Wales energy demand [based on existing measurements] of 60 – 65 TWh of annual energy by 2025-2030, of which 30-35 TWh would be electricity, allowing some leeway for a more Welsh manufacture and enhanced local food supply chains.

The initial question therefore translates, crudely, into: can Wales generate some 30-35 TWh of renewable electricity and 25 to 35 TWh heat by ~2030?

 3. Constraints and Possibilities:

Every potential source of heat and electricity has limitations and problems. But, as noted, continuing fossil fuel burning is not an option due to potentially catastrophic climate change, sea level rise etc. Best estimates are that the total post 2010, global CO2 emissions must not exceed 1,100 Bt of CO2; and this ration is being depleted by >35Bt per year. Since there is no prospect of nuclear fusion being rolled out in the required time, electricity-generating options are limited. Dominantly these are developing a range of renewable sources and/or nuclear power. In terms of heat, the main renewable options are solar, biomass/wood and air/ground and water heat pumps in various combinations.

 3.1. Electricity

Renewable sources are dispersed and numerous but have a low energy density and can have a visual impact. Historically the supply pattern, from CEGB days, is of generation in a few large plants, be they coal, oil, gas or nuclear, and then distribution out to users by the National Grid and local DNO grids. This allowed central control, both technical and fiscal, and was amenable to ‘privatization’. Much of this infrastructure is now foreign owned. Critically profit is related to use and the system is not easily compatible with a push towards energy saving nor with embracing multiple, dispersed and intermittent renewable sources.

Two competing models for electricity generation, distribution and use are emerging. The first retains a “ privatized CEGB model’ with international companies building and owning major power-stations and the grid etc. their risk underwritten by government but with citizens being passive-end users and payers. UK Government has a major role in controlling and often subsidizing, directly or indirectly, the provision cf. high strike price for Hinkley C and the  range of subsidies and tax breaks being provided for oil and gas exploration and production, including fracking.

The alternative, while necessarily retaining a significant element of central management to help balance supply and demand on local and continental scale, envisages a new model based on dispersed generation from many renewable sources, mostly locally owned (many communal projects) linked in a series of stacked smart grids.  Below the very high voltage grid, these would be municipally owed and run. This model is evolving in Denmark and Germany.

The adoption of this model would be ground-changing for Wales and could have major economic, social and environmental advantages. But it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge significant issues and below I list both the advantages and the problems. This concept is predicated on Wales having sufficient terrestrial and off shore renewal energy capacity for internal use i.e. at least 35 TWh of electricity annually from an installed capacity of 6 to 10 GW depending on load factors achieved. [13.3GW required at 30% load factor – typical of on-shore wind farms; 4GW would imply an unrealistic 100% load factor]. There could be an added economic attraction of an export potential to England and elsewhere and/or a capacity to attract enterprises wishing to use reliable zero carbon energy in their businesses. This model supports and enhances local self-reliance and resilience, and the use of these resources to help counter the pull and power of the ‘City’ i.e. making the most of our comparative advantages. While this discussion focuses on Wales, international comparisons show that these aspects are equally applicable to England and elsewhere. It is of course counter to the concept that Anglesey should be the location for international companies to generate 10% of the UK electricity supply, which is then exported at little or no local gain after the construction stage.

I am aware of no comprehensive study of Wales’ renewable energy potential addressing also the technical, economic and social constraints to realising this potential. My own ‘guestimates’ and proportional calculations from David Mackay’s UK analysis suggest that sufficient renewable electricity generation is feasible and can meet the nation’s needs provided adequate storage is installed. The ‘Heat requirement’ depends heavily on insulation standards.

In a separate section I list potential renewable energy sources. I am excluding nuclear because it reinforces a centralised CEGB model, is very expensive, carries a long term commitment for a tax payer bailout, carries a long term requirement/risk of radiation containment in thousands of years (c.f. Roman Wales only 2,000 year ago), will not generate exportable expertise and is clearly inappropriate in much of our fractious world.

Should the renewable energy/ energy saving equation not add up, this may have to be considered but the imperative is to undertake the detailed work on the dispersed model before jumping on any Nuclear Band Wagon with its long-term implications.

Advantages to dispersed generation/energy efficiency model:

  • Empower communities and individuals/emphasise individual responsibility.
  • Potential to save billions in costs to Welsh people.
  • Decrease heat poverty/cold- illnesses etc.
  • Change relationship between people and energy creating a new awareness and promoting energy saving.
  • Fully renewable.
  • A major move to sustainability.
  • Geographically dispersed and varied long-term job creation.
  • Can stimulate development of other business and exportable skills.
  • Decrease need for new high voltage power lines across the country.
  • Synergy between rural and urban communities
  • Stimulate local technological initiatives.
  • Give WG major influence of Wales’ primary assets – water, land and energy and change power balance.
  • A balance of tidal/hydro/wind and solar, with storage, could give a consistent reliable supply.
  • The speed with which both small scale projects and energy saving can happen without long lead-times


  • Requires innovative mechanisms for local funding.
  • Requires changes in ways planning applications are addressed and balance of advice to support local and community energy production.
  • Requires local, regional and national electricity storage but new methods/battery technology are developing vey quickly
  • Require local grid enhancement but fewer high voltage, visually intrusive development.
  • May require full control by WG of water and energy policy and resources but a significant start can be made immediately.
  • Long lead times for development of decentralised grid and potentially for devolution of energy powers

3.2. Heat

Space heating, mainly using oil and gas and some coal, electricity and renewables e.g. wood fired stoves, accounts for ~30% of Wales’ energy use [~30TWh].

Given the poor quality of our housing stock and the pervasive heat poverty in some areas, this is an area where major improvements can be made by better insulation. But Wales has specific problems with a significant proportion of stone and solid brick building and a wet climate creating a propensity for damp and condensation. In many areas cavity wall insulation is not appropriate. That said solutions exist, but require planning  guidance that prioritises energy efficiency.

New higher energy efficiency building regulations are required for new build but the majority of Wales’ 1.4 million existing homes will still in use in 2040 and most will require retro fitting.

Potential heat sources include:

  • Wood biomass – WG policy is to increase Wales woodland cover from ~300,000 to 400,000 ha [perhaps 2/3 of added woodland should be hard wood]. By 2030/40 this will give a sustainable yield of timber which can be used for heat either in community heating schemes or individual houses as well as for building etc. Estimated potential ~ 2 to 5 TWh annually when the forest has reached a degree of maturity. Unfortunately WG has progressed this policy very slowly. (Timber’s calorific value is ~4MWh/tonne, so 4TWh requires 1 million tonnes Current Welsh annual production is around 800,000 cubic metres equivalent to 360.000 tonnes of sitka, so 4TWh would require a tripling of wood production).
  • Well insulated houses can then be warmed effectively by ground source heat pumps. These pumps require electricity but supply about 3kW of heat per kW of electricity used. Thus at a macro scale 1 TWh of renewable electricity would generate  > 3 TWh of heat.; a huge gain compared with an electric fire.  Air source heat pumps can also achieve this scale of conversion where insufficient land is available for ground source heat pumps.
  • Solar heating can supply hot water efficiently and at low cost but I know of no estimate of the energy used in Wales in water heating.
  • Passive solar gain can be designed into new housing.
  • Methane from AD including from animal slurry/manure, human wastes and food and other waste products.
  • District heating must be evaluated immediately in urban areas.

3.3. Wales’ Renewable energy resources including water:

3.4. Electricity storage


However the above is based on macro schemes e.g. Severn Barrage (although this capacity can be largely replaced by 3 or 4 Tidal lagoons e.g. Swansea Bay, Upper Severn, Colwyn Bay/Rhyl and maybe Carmarthen Bay) and schemes such as the Rhiannon Wind Farm which is now in abeyance.

Curiously Wales’ hydroelectric potential, including existing reservoir infrastructure, is not considered. But note the Hafod y Llan scheme of 320MW has a potential of about 2GWh and many schemes of this size and smaller could be developed with a much lower visual impact than on-shore wind.

In summary it is very likely, even high probable, that Wales can be ‘renewable energy’ self-sufficient and that this can be a transformative asset with a much longer impact than King Coal.


It is not easy to append costs. Most agree that energy saving offers a much better economic [and social/environmental] return than new energy generation. Currently the full costs of hydrocarbon burning are not included in our fuel bills, indeed the sector is heavily subsidised. Similarly even though the agreed strike price for `Hinkley C Nuclear Power station appears high at up to £92.50 per MWh [at 2012 prices inflation proofed] This price does not include decommissioning cost nor long term storage and protection of radioactive wastes for thousands of years. It appears that the Austrian Government is intending to challenge the implied subsidy. The price sought for Swansea Bay Tidal Electricity is ~£145 per MWh, recognising that this is a pilot scheme, . Below I have added some  data to give a very broad indication, but without any indication of environmental damage.

4. Conclusion:

There is a very clear indication that Wales has substantial zero carbon renewable energy resources and that these are an important comparative advantage. Just as the City of London and SE England exploit their comparative advantages of financial muscle, political power and geographical location, Wales and the Welsh people must responsibly exploit their own comparative advantages to ensure their economic future as well as social coherence and fulfil their environment responsibilities.

Gareth Wyn Jones is Honorary Professor at Bangor University

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