Infrastructure is the Cinderella of modern society. Underpinning every activity we undertake, it is nonetheless largely taken for granted, except when it isn’t there.
It’s the job of policy-makers and planners in the public sector, and their counterparts and engineering professionals in the private sector, to ensure that infrastructure is robust and accessible round the clock. To their credit, there are very few times when this part of the system fails.
It’s also the job of those same people to ensure that society’s future demands on infrastructure can be met, which requires direction and investment. The ambit of future scenarios is fascinating, in that it affords both great challenge and great opportunity for our infrastructure — and by extension, for society as a whole.
But it’s my personal fear that we are failing to meet the challenges and obligations set to us by our future generations.
Foremost amongst my areas of concern is our electricity grid. The capacity in Wales, both in distribution and transmission, is completely full. This means that most new renewable generators face punishing costs to upgrade large chunks of the system, leaving many projects unviable.
In mid Wales, the situation is particularly severe. This is where Wales’ most productive and dependable wind resource is literally stranded, pending the development of the mid Wales connection. This 400kV connection would greatly facilitate Wales in meeting its own renewable energy targets, but is itself dependent on the ability of onshore wind — the cheapest form of renewable electricity — to access the market.
Mid Wales is doubly-penalised; insufficient grid to generate and export renewable energy, and potentially insufficient grid — ‘grid poverty’ — to make use of new technologies such as electric vehicles and heat pumps. As I wrote in 2017, this lack of access to potentially money-saving technologies has the potential to further disadvantage rural dwellers, and could lead to communities becoming increasingly dependent on unaffordable ways of heating and transport.
However, although the position in mid Wales is particularly acute, the grid is squeezed everywhere. I have been told by the two Distribution Network Operators in Wales that no new thermal generation or battery storage greater than 1MW can be installed until 2026.
This limitation is crippling our ability to take part in new energy and economic systems, once again condemning Wales to use legacy 20th century infrastructure as our UK neighbours move seamlessly into a more enlightened system of low-carbon generation, storage and smart use.
Wales is at a crucial point with respect to a range of infrastructure issues, and rural Wales, in a Brexit landscape, is particularly vulnerable.
However I believe that within this uncertainty lies opportunity. With Wales’ rural areas replete in notorious ‘not-spots’ for both mobile signal and 4G internet, could we combine new grid infrastructure with 5G mobile networks, leap-frogging old technologies in ways advantageous to rural livelihoods?
Why shouldn’t Welsh Government — and other public sector organisations — take a stake in the grid infrastructure which would be needed to connect much-needed onshore wind projects, facilitating the development of renewables in Wales and simultaneously providing opportunity to a whole host of modern, low-impact manufacturing and processing clusters across rural Wales?
Could the proposed ‘Lôn Rhiannon’ also incorporate a grid line and future-proofed mobile network infrastructure, alongside a new cycle network, up the spine of Wales?
With the new National Infrastructure Commission about to sit, there are a range of future opportunities which could change the way in which we view infrastructure. Multi-use, combined infrastructure, paid for in innovative ways and by new participants (crowd-funded grid anyone?) could unleash the creativity and enthusiasm of our citizens, businesses and public sector organisations. I cordially invite the new members of National Infrastructure Commission for Wales to use their imagination to the fullest when considering how best to serve the future interests of our people.
And if they want some food for thought, my door is always open.
(This article was first published on the Institute of Welsh Affairs website here.)