Future energy infrastructure

John Lloyd Jones explores the impact of today’s infrastructure decisions on Wales’ energy future

Ahead of an IWA roundtable later this week, this is the first in a series of click on wales articles exploring the implications of meeting Wales’ renewable energy targets. 


Energy will be one of the issues addressed in a range of proposals being drawn up for the future economic and environmental well-being of Wales.


These proposals are being devised by our new National Infrastructure Commission for Wales (NICW). The NICW is an advisory body which is providing the Welsh Government with independent, well-informed advice on investment in infrastructure for the next five to 30 years.


Our key goals are to support economic prosperity and to create an ever more resilient environment.


That environment is already under threat because of climate change caused by burning fossil fuels. Our weather is already more extreme, with wet and stormy winters threatening flooding and dry summers affecting water consumption and crops.


A little over a century ago a third of global coal exports were mined in the pits of South Wales. But today we have cleaner energy to export in the form of wind, wave and solar power.


According to a recent report, Energy Generation in Wales, we generated twice what we consumed in electricity in 2017, making Wales a significant exporter to the UK and Europe. 


Some 48% of the electricity consumed in Wales came from renewable resources, compared with 43% in the previous year. 


The target for 2030 is 70%. Furthermore, we are halfway towards a target of having one gigawatt of renewable electricity capacity which is locally owned.


So can infrastructure planning help us reach, even surpass, that target? We believe it can and will.


The commissioners of the NICW are drawn from a range of disciplines including engineering, business, communications and digital technology. In our initial meetings, we have started to address the challenge of how to grow our economy and at the same time protect our environment.


We recognise the special opportunity for Wales in the world of low carbon, recyclable power and energy storage.


Success will mean every region, every community can have the opportunity to share in a more successful economy.


In a service-led economy, digital technology will reduce our need to physically move from place to place. We can do more business via digital rather than physical superhighways.


The NICW’s timescale takes us close to 2050, when new cars will be required by law to be powered without fossil fuels.


We are considering what infrastructure we will require to ensure businesses, commuters and holidaymakers can easily plan their journeys across, in and out of Wales.


Strategic infrastructure provides the backbone on which a connected economy can thrive. With connectivity and scale come business and energy efficiency.


Until recently it was economic orthodoxy that a growing economy will demand more electricity.


But since 2005 electricity demand across the UK has declined while the economy has grown in real terms, despite the financial crisis.


We have more jobs in services and fewer in manufacturing. Factories and machines are more energy efficient. So are washing machines and other domestic devices. LED lights have cut consumption and household bills.


But electricity demand is going to start increasing as cars move from fuel to battery power. That will require further investment in renewables to avoid moving carbon emissions from car engines to power stations.


Energy efficiency must be integral to the development of new business infrastructure. It makes good business sense and environmental sense.


We must also recognise that many “energy hungry” manufacturing jobs have been lost overseas. Carbon dioxide is pumped out of factories and power stations around the world as a result of what we import. We have a global responsibility to be responsible and thoughtful consumers.


Among our first tasks as commissioners is to evaluate what is available to us today. The best infrastructure lasts for generations. For example, some Welsh reservoirs are dammed by walls built 150 years ago. Some of our industrial legacy has been repurposed for a new age of leisure and tourism. Consider the tourist attractions in former slate-mining centres in North Wales. What else in our stock of factories, pits and ports can be repurposed?


And with long-term planning for infrastructure, flexibility is key. A century ago people could not have imagined a future without coal. Just a few years back, life without a fixed phone line would have seemed impossible.


Today many of us can’t imagine being without a car of our own. Will that still be the case when cars are driverless and electric-powered?


Whatever the future holds, let’s face it with an open mind, and optimism.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

John Lloyd Jones is Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales.

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