IWA Analysis: Powering Ynys Môn and its People – The future path to Net Zero

Lydia Godden summarises the IWA and Bangor Universities' open discussion about the economic future plans of The Anglesey Energy Island programme.

Lydia Godden summarises the IWA and Bangor Universities’ open discussion about the economic future plans of The Anglesey Energy Island programme.

The IWA’s ongoing partnership with Bangor University has been hosting discussions about the economic future of the region to enhance the visibility of research and innovation initiatives. The Anglesey Energy Island programme aims to develop the potential of Ynys Môn (Anglesey) to become a hub for investments in the sphere of renewable and low carbon energy. 

Our discussion examined how the region can take advantage of its natural resources to stimulate the ‘Energy Island,’ whilst creating sustainable economic and social benefits for its communities. The evening featured a discussion of the future of energy in North Wales chaired by Auriol Miller (IWA) with panellists Virginia Crosbie MP, Dylan Williams (Anglesey County Council), Dr John Idris Jones (Morlais) and Debbie Jones (M-SParc). We were also joined by Professor Simon Middleburgh (Nuclear Futures Institute) and Professor Simon Neill (School of Ocean Sciences) who presented ongoing research in their respective fields.

Powering Places and People

How we power our communities securely, reliably and sustainably sits at the heart of the vision for our collective net zero future. This is especially the case on Ynys Môn, from the Freeport announced earlier this year, to the generation of tidal stream energy at Morlais and with the Wylfa site in Anglesey hinted to be the next nuclear site by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the opportunities ahead are many. Such developments offer to deliver transformative economic and social impacts to the region and stimulate investment, but they can also be a source of local debate and, occasionally, leave a painful legacy. In Anglesey, residents have been left in limbo after a previous project to build a new nuclear power plant, Wylfa Newydd was cancelled. As a result, our event shed light on three questions. Which projects have the best chance of having a positive impact on climate, communities and the local economy? What is the role of the public sector in providing a clear direction of travel? And how are the benefits of investment into renewables on Ynys Môn going to be felt by its people?

While undertaking research for a forthcoming IWA report which examines the economic and social impacts of community benefit funds deriving from energy projects across Wales, I heard from several stakeholders about the complexities of ensuring such projects not only provide energy but unleash lasting and tangible benefits for host communities as part of the just transition to net zero. Across Wales, decades of extractive mining practices have left a legacy of pain in many communities, which I explored in my article for the latest issue of the welsh agenda. However, the imminent climate and nature emergency demands action and here, low carbon and renewable technologies can provide an opportunity to create a new approach to energy generation in Wales, one that places value on the role of communities and ensures the benefits of a just transition are felt across Wales. 

Nuclear energy: a path to Net Zero?

The evening began with a presentation from Professor Simon Middleburgh who outlined the vision for Bangor University’s Nuclear Futures Institute to become a world-leading team in nuclear and other low carbon technologies. On securing the low carbon future that North Wales requires, Professor Middleburgh explained, ‘renewables need to play a big part in this but nuclear does too’. He outlined that nuclear power can play a crucial role in providing the high temperatures required for hydrogen energy generation in north Wales.

Morlais and the opportunities of tidal energy

Professor Simon Neill of Bangor University outlined some challenges and opportunities arising from tidal energy stream generation on Ynys Môn: ‘The really good thing about tidal energy is that it’s predictable… it’s really good to integrate into grid electricity and it’s renewable’. Further, he argued that tidal stream energy had minimal visual impacts once installed, but provided an engaging analysis of the potential challenges of the technology. 

This is particularly topical given the development of the Morlais tidal stream project on the Island. As the largest consented project in the world of its type, there is a unique opportunity for Ynys Môn to lead the way in this important growth sector. 

Aside from the technology used, Morlais is also leading the way in its commitment to retaining local benefit for its communities. At its core Morlais is a third sector social enterprise created to ensure benefits and profit are retained within the local community. It is precisely this approach, alongside its cutting edge technology, that represents a new way of doing things, showing how a real just transition may be realised, one that takes communities on the journey to net zero and stimulates economic redistribution.

The really good thing about tidal energy is that it’s predictable… it’s really good to integrate into grid electricity and it’s renewable.

From green energy to green skills

On skills, Dylan Williams outlined that Ynys Môn’s skills base remained an important obstacle that may prevent the island from harnessing its bountiful natural resources and unleashing wider economic and social benefits: ‘From the perspective of skills, the biggest problem we have is people go to college and university, but where do they go after that? There’s an over reliance on the public sector in this area… once they finish at university, they can’t return and the jobs aren’t here’. He explained that the many ambitious and talented people who contribute to their local communities do so outside of Anglesey. Retaining this skill base will therefore be an important factor going forward. 

Furthermore, given the significant loss of industry and subsequent job losses of recent years across North Wales, Virginia Crosby MP explained that the future energy generation on the Island could provide permanent, high quality jobs for local communities, with Wylfa playing a crucial role. However, one audience member raised concerns, given the uncertainty around the delivery of the Wylfa Newydd nuclear site in the past. In 2021, nuclear plant builder Hitachi withdrew their application following a series of disputes with the UK Government over the uncertainty of funding provision, an outcome that left ‘scars in the local community’.

This coupled with the alarming brain drain of young people leaving the region to seek employment in south Wales or England, young people might justifiably lack confidence in such job opportunities ever materialising. ‘We need to go even further to ensure we don’t let these young people down’, responded Crosby, who reassured the audience that the UK Government ‘has a plan’ on energy delivery in Wales and committed to go ‘ever further’ to ensure the delivery of jobs for her constituents in Ynys Môn. 

Innovation, research and education also have a key role to play in the economic future of the region. Debbie Jones outlined her hopes for MSparc to become a centre of expertise and shared learning on low carbon technologies. MSparc has the potential to provide opportunities for those who want careers in low carbon energy sectors within North Wales and could hopefully draw some young people to return to work on Ynys Môn.

Nuclear can play a useful part in the low carbon energy mix by adding significantly to the base load supply of energy. It will be our task, at the IWA, to engage critically with current and future governments’ chosen pathways to net zero emissions

The cost of nuclear?

As the event opened up to engage with audience members and their questions, some expressed concern regarding the impact of nuclear generation on the island. One audience member asked:  ‘Given the large potential of renewable energy on the island, and the carbon intensive nature associated with the construction of nuclear energy, when we have a cheap and obvious option available, why would we look to nuclear?’ Criticisms of nuclear energy often focus on safety and waste management and disposal which can remain harmful for generations. While acknowledging nuclear plant disasters have occurred, Dylan Williams explained, recent developments in nuclear safety have made the technology safer and more resilient. As Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made clear, nuclear power is part of the UK’s current strategy and is likely to remain part of the energy mix for the years ahead. 

While the IWA’s Re-energising Wales report demonstrates how Wales can meet its net zero targets without the use of nuclear, many argue nuclear can play a useful part in the low carbon energy mix by adding significantly to the base load supply of energy. It will be our task, at the IWA, to engage critically with current and future governments’ chosen pathways to net zero emissions.

Energy developments can be a source of economic renewal and opportunities, and hold transformative powers for local communities. Thwarted hopes and fears for the future, however, can also make them a site of tension and understandable discussion, and it is therefore essential that residents are given a seat at the table when debating future energy projects. Events like this can play an important part in devising a fair and sustainable energy future where all can have a say, and we look forward to future collaborative work with our partners at Bangor. 

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Lydia Godden is the IWA's Economic Policy and Research Officer

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