Ahead of the Future Energy Wales conference, Abi Beck interviews Jess Hooper, Director of RenewableUK Cymru, taking us through her career and Wales’ potential for net zero
Wales’ route to net zero takes centre stage at the International Conference Centre in Newport next month. Jess Hooper will be stepping into the spotlight to welcome industry leaders, expert speakers, exhibitors and government officials alike to Future Energy Wales.
As Director of Wales’ leading renewable energy trade association, RenewableUK Cymru, she and her team have honed a programme designed to drive discussions and actions around the energy landscape we want for future generations.
Fittingly, this year’s largest annual event dedicated to renewable energy in Wales also marks the 20-year anniversary of Jess Hooper’s first foray into renewables. A spring that became a trickle of enthusiasm and led her to follow a trail that quickly broadened into a clear career pathway. How many of us could trace the reason we stand behind a podium today to a precise event two decades earlier?
Where it all began
For RenewableUK Cymru’s Director, it was a piece of Geography GCSE coursework. The challenge was to investigate how much a renewable energy project could shave off the family’s electricity bill on their 250-acre farm in Pembrokeshire. The surprising result sowed a seed in her parents’ minds, and before long they were discussing wind speed and noise surveys at the dinner table and countering piles of objection letters to host the first privately owned commercial wind turbine in Wales.
Hooper recalls: ‘The first turbine we bought was a ten-year-old second hand 500KW Nordtank in 2003. Our singular wind turbine order was so small scale, not one of the turbine manufacturers wanted to deal with us, so we had to scout second hand markets leading us to Denmark.
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‘We visited communities there where whole villages were being powered by wind. That really struck me, the potential this technology could have. The Nordtank paid for itself in under three years and after the site was re-powered, it is still running today on a different site. It proved our station was viable, allowing more turbines to follow.’
Gaining experience and building her portfolio
The battles and triumphs of those early days, and the collection of experiences that followed, have set Jess Hooper in good stead to lead Wales towards the huge scale of opportunities the energy transition brings. At a time when few people realised renewable energy had career prospects, let alone how to go about finding them, she set her sights on building an impressive portfolio of projects in the sector.
Her first job out of university was working as a consultant assessing the development potential of the Welsh Government’s Technical Advice Note 8 (TAN 8), the strategic land areas identified for large-scale wind farm development. Followed by spells in onshore and offshore wind, along with experience in innovative tidal turbine site design and then hydro. This was characterised by ‘long spells neck deep in mud alongside 20-tonne diggers’ overseeing hydro projects in Scotland.
I would like to use Future Energy Wales as a mechanism to hold both the UK and Welsh Governments to account – to demonstrate how they need to deliver to meet their own net zero targets
‘It’s always been about both wind and water for me. One of the best things about growing up in Pembrokeshire is that you are never far from the water’s edge. I remember rowing with my Dad on the Cleddau and him pointing out the tide and telling me how much power and potential it held. It has taken us too long to truly grasp that potential, but that is finally changing.’
Those early days of offshore wind are a good example, where the industry had an uphill battle to convince people it could work. Hooper says:
‘The idea of building gigawatt projects miles off the coast of the North Sea in areas like Doggerbank just seemed incredible,’ she says, ‘It is still incredible. Yet it is happening, and today the UK is building the world’s largest offshore wind farm here.’
Getting Wales to 100% renewable energy
Devolution in Wales has brought enormous potential beset by budget pressures, and the rollout of renewable energy has been ‘more of a slog’ than it ought to have in her mind, given the enormous benefits and opportunities it holds.
Her varied background gave her a valuable perspective on the different stumbling blocks, and the certainty that the biggest challenge faced by the sector remains what it has always been: convincing governments to prioritise and value renewables and create consistent, strategic policy to support them over the long-term.
If we are serious about the 2035 target and making it work for Wales, we need more than just commitment. It is the actions we take today that will determine whether we deliver for future generations
‘What excites me most about my current role is the emphasis on solutions, says the Director. ‘RenewableUK members face many common difficulties, whether that is a lack of grid connection or extensive delays in the planning system,’ she states, ‘My role is to help them collaborate to find resolutions, and then take those to the policy makers with the power to implement them. I would like to use Future Energy Wales as a mechanism to hold both the UK and Welsh Governments to account – to demonstrate how they need to deliver to meet their own net zero targets.’
Future Energy Wales will focus on the Welsh Government target to meet 100% of its electricity needs from renewable sources by 2035. This two-day conference is the place to discover what a diverse and resilient energy mix offers for small to medium sized businesses in Wales.
Jess Hooper sumerises: ‘Twenty years ago what I saw was the potential for opportunity, now that opportunity has arrived. It’s within our reach, and if we are serious about the 2035 target and making it work for Wales, we need more than just commitment. It is the actions we take today that will determine whether we deliver for future generations.’