Alun Ffred Jones outlines the findings of a recent report into the future of energy in Wales.
In order to limit climate change Wales now has legally-binding targets to reduce carbon emissions. Our only chance of meeting this target is to completely transform the way we all think about energy; its generation, distribution, storage and conservation.
When faced with such a challenge, it is easy to assume that the obstacles to such a transformation are insurmountable. However, Germany offers us an example of how this challenge can be overcome.
Last year, the Assembly’s Environment and Sustainability Committee visited South-West Germany to see how the energy transformation – the Energiewende – had taken hold. What we saw showed us what was possible with the right mix of leadership, policy and regulation. We saw many inspirational examples of what could be achieved if policy makers are brave enough to take hard decisions and when communities can control the shape of their energy future.
Much of what we learnt can be applied to Wales but only by an ambitious government. Further powers may be required for Wales to deliver the vision we set out in the Committee’s recent report on ‘A Smarter Energy Future for Wales’, but the majority of changes we can make now.
What must be done to deliver this transformation?
It starts with leadership. A clear and stable policy direction is essential. Citizens, business and the public sector need to know what is expected of them and be confident that the policies will be consistently applied.
This policy has to lead Wales to meet all its energy needs from renewable sources.
In future we will have to ensure we have local energy supply to local markets. While larger-scale inward investment projects will continue to play their part, they must not divert resources away from nurturing diffused local solutions. The ownership and regulation of generation, transmission, distribution and supply infrastructure must be flexible enough to allow this level of innovation.
The conservation of energy must also be addressed; both in terms of new buildings and our existing stock.
Welsh Ministers have the power to ensure that every new house that is built meets the highest energy efficiency standards. Experts at Cardiff University have developed the SOLCER HOUSE – a house so well designed and insulated that it produces more energy than it uses, and which can be built for the same cost as a standard new home. This shows us that affordable and scalable models for this type of housing are viable. With high levels of new housing planned in the coming decade, it is vital that we don’t allow energy inefficiency to be locked in for future-generations.
We have a unique opportunity to design smarter communities that integrate transport, energy and communications infrastructure in a way that improves quality of life and reduces harmful emissions.
Making this happen is the responsible thing to do. The task of improving Wales’s existing housing stock is substantial, and government cannot add to this by avoiding the difficult decision to raise the bar for energy efficiency in new builds as soon as possible. Not doing so merely defers the problem for future generations.
Taking a lead in this area can bring first-mover advantages. ‘Made in Wales’ skills and solutions will become exportable; providing much needed growth and jobs.
Such a bold step will pose challenges to the construction sector. But meeting them brings new opportunities. If the existing players in the market are unwilling to meet the aspirations for a smarter energy future, then the German experience shows us that new suppliers will fill the gap. Either way, the opportunity for the Welsh economy is substantial.
New ways of storing energy for heat and electricity must be developed, as integrating storage into this transformation offers some exciting possibilities.
What are the benefits of transforming Wales’s approach to energy?
There are social and environmental benefits to reducing carbon emissions, but we know that the single biggest motivator for change will be the potential for lower energy bills.
Reducing the need for energy and increasing local supply will lead to lower bills and greater energy security in the long term. This, in turn, will reduce fuel inequality.
Local ownership of energy supply will mean that communities will be empowered to control their energy future and will derive real and lasting benefits from this change.
We must each play our part if we are to meet the challenges we face and take the opportunities presented to us. For everyone to have the opportunity to play their part, the next Welsh Government must provide the necessary leadership to set the vision and framework for this change.
Wales must seize opportunities to transform its approach to energy now and take the brave decisions to make the transition to a ‘smarter energy’ future for Wales.