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Author: gweinyddwr

July 20/ Open source social media will save our democracy

In an opinion piece in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, Carole Cadwalladr describes how Facebook is the virus that has enabled the catastrophes of both Brexit, and the ascension of Mr. Trump to the White House.

Facebook allows lies to spread virtually unchecked. It permits those people with the most money and least scruples to disseminate falsehoods to those most susceptible. And it allows this with no prospect of holding individuals or organisations to account.

Whilst Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms have enabled a blossoming of connection, conversation and shared ideas; they have also created a bitter, divisive, polarised digital world where shareholder value is enhanced most by highlighting division and minimising harmony. Quiet, reasoned thoughts are filtered out by algorithms designed to maximise clicks, retweets and likes. Volume is king.

Many people want to make a difference but they don’t know how. But there is an antidote to the virus of misinformation and hatred. That antidote is open source social media, and it’s already spreading at the fringes of the online universe.

Open source social media

Open source social media doesn’t permit advertising. It doesn’t sell data. It prohibits hate speech and intolerance*. And it’s moderated by users, not resourced at the behest of global tech giants. 

More worryingly for the incumbents, the hotbeds of innovation are no longer in the mega-corporations with their teams of thousands in the offices and boardrooms of (mostly) America. They are in the open source equivalents, with code freely available for thousands of supporters and volunteers across the globe to build and improve. 

From the perspective of Wales’ Future Generations Act, anybody using, promoting or supporting these open source platforms is supporting the goal of a Globally Responsible Wales. From a worldwide perspective, that same user or supporter is increasing the freely-accessible sum of human knowledge. 

One clear example of this innovation is the federation between open source platforms (also known as the Fediverse). Federation is the ability to connect different social media platforms, so that posts and updates become mutually visible.

This means that if you post a photo on Pixelfed (ethical version of Instagram), it pops up in your feed on Mastodon (ethical version of Twitter). Likewise websites, blogs and updates on the ethical equivalent of pretty much every ‘surveillance capitalism’ platform you can think of can cross-post to each other, enabling much more streamlined conversations and updates.

What are the downsides (and upsides)?

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room; the big downside of the new open source Fediverse is that user numbers are far, far lower than for the established platforms.

This is hardly surprising; there’s a headstart of fifteen years or so for many of the tech giants. And the science behind social media means that there’s an agglomeration effect; once most of your friends are engaged on a platform, it takes a significant effort to leave them behind and start something new.

For me personally it meant (mostly) leaving my Twitter account of several thousand followers, and starting a fresh new Mastodon account on toot.wales, one of many ‘locality’ type instances across the world. 

I instantly ‘lost out’ on the instantaneous stream of updates from my many friends and colleagues, and on the rough-and-tumble of (what passes for) debate there. There’s likely an impact on my ability to promote my new business, Afallen, through that network, too. 

However, what I have found is a new community of online friends and collaborators. I’ve witnessed almost zero hatred or bullying. And I’ve relished using platforms which don’t harvest my personal data in order to sell them to companies who may – in many cases – place profit above the public good.

The truth is that the community of users in Mastodon (and the other platforms) is growing steadily – see the example below for activity on toot.wales. At some tipping point – I’m convinced – the growth will start to become exponential, and then the users who became active first will see the biggest benefits.

Weekly interactions on the toot.wales platform

But the biggest benefit of all will come when people start to leave the platforms of the tech giants en masse, lessening their influence as the custodians of online debate and information-sharing, and contributing to a kinder, gentler and more thoughtful world of public discourse.

Further information

If you’re interested in finding out more about the ethical, privacy-conscious alternatives to the mainstream social media platforms, head to switching.software.

*Almost all ‘instances’ of open source social media ban hate and intolerance. Those that don’t are generally blocked, so the hatred is restricted to a small portion of the Fediverse

July 20/ Own a tiny piece of a wind turbine

I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of working for the renewable energy sector for more than fifteen years – much of that supporting onshore wind.

Onshore wind is the cheapest form of electricity, and can be deployed relatively quickly. It is the perfect complement to solar, typically increasing its output during the winter months. And I think that wind turbines themselves are elegant, beautiful and symbolic of our move away from fossil fuel and towards a better, brighter future.

In the summer of 2019 I was asked if I wanted to help support a new kind of onshore wind project. The concept, produced by Ripple Energy, is for co-operatively owned wind projects to produce electricity, and then sell it as close to market price as possible, with the value captured for members of the co-op.

I was intrigued, and delighted to be asked to lend my support, and so I agreed to Chair the Board of a new pilot wind project cooperative.

Fast forward to July 2020 (and me stepping down from Chair due to Covid-19 and furlough!), and after a huge amount of hard work by Simon Peltenburg, Sarah Merrick and my fellow Board members, the project is now live. Yes, you can buy your own tiny bit of a wind farm, and – as near as possible – have a direct link between the electricity you use and the electricity you generate, straight from a wind turbine.

The turbine is based in the Rhondda in south Wales, and will directly benefit local residents through a local impact fund. It will directly benefit the members of the cooperative by reducing their electricity bills – as long as there’s a differential between the cost of building and running the wind turbine, compared to the wholesale cost of electricity. All the models of predicted electricity prices point to this being the case.

There’s a ‘cost calculator‘ to help you find out how much a share in the coop would cost, and the potential savings you could make.

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Supporting the sector

Many people, only too aware of the impact that our everyday activities are having on climate, are keen to try to make more direct change to how we live our lives. This project, and the Ripple concept more generally, do exactly that.

I am really excited by the prospect of tens or hundreds of these projects, growing in scale across the UK and beyond, harnessing the power of individuals and (in due course) businesses to directly put their money where the science tells us we need to.

As usual, there are a whole bunch of caveats with this sort of ‘investment’ – available from the share document, which also features me(!) as a Board member.

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You’ll need to change supplier to Octopus Energy for a while (sorry Bulb, you were great but I understand that in future there will be a range of suppliers we can switch to) – but in my case that was handled very straightforwardly.

Please head to the website, take a look around, and if you think this is a project worth supporting, join me and hundreds of others in making it a reality.

July 20/ What’s a feminist anti-racist?

Years back….in the time before Covid19….in the time when I was still a citizen of the European Union….I made the decision to ‘badge’ myself as a feminist on social media.

David Clubb's Mastodon profile, with the words 'Feminist. Physicist. Anti-racist' emphasised with a red ellipse.

I’d been thinking about it for a while, but I really wasn’t sure whether it would be viewed positively by others – women or men. It took seeing a popular (at the time) politician from overseas for me to overcome my trepidation, and to headline my social media accounts with the designation. That politician was Justin Trudeau, and he publicly urged men to embrace the word – and everything that lies behind it.

Mr Trudeau’s popularity has waned somewhat since then, and he’s faced criticism of his own feminism. But of course, this is part of the power of the public declaration. Once declared, forever – in principle – held accountable.

But what did feminism mean to Mr Trudeau? And what does it mean to me? And in the context of the recent #BlackLivesMatter #BLM movement, what does a public declaration of being an anti-racist mean?

I decided that I needed to publicly commit to a set of standards that I expect of myself and that others can expect of me. I confess that they may be naive, and I’m happy to take recommendations for improvement. But I also feel that it’s not enough to just *be* an anti-racist, or a feminist. I also have to make a public stand, and to help others gain confidence to make their stand too.

I’ve also detailed the things that I have done in order to make a material difference to both movements. Again, I’d be happy to take any feedback on what I’ve described.

Wales is not immune to accusations of systemic racism, and systemic sexism. It’s incumbent on all who have power, in whatever sector, at whatever level, to try to redress the balance 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿✊🏻✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿.

June 20 / A long road: 2021 targets for CO2 emissions in the EU

The European Environment Agency (EEA), my former employer, has published the latest in the series of reports about CO2 emissions for new vans and cars.

As shown in the graph below, there is a big mismatch between the trendline and the 2021 target which requires a very substantial drop in average emissions. Perhaps the manufacturers are banking on the continuing ‘march’ of the low-emission vehicle?

A recent upturn in the average values reflects an increasing predilection for SUVs for EU citizens. This is a shame from the perspective of climate policy; they are generally heavier and less efficient.

The shockwaves of #Dieselgate continue to reverberate, with another fall in diesel registrations – 9% decrease in the last year to 36% of the total market – bringing the total decline to 19% since the peak year of 2011.

The glimmer of hope is that the market share for hybrid and Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) has increased from 1% to 2% from 2016 to 2018. Continued exponential growth may yet bring transport emissions on track.

Real-world testing

The wheels of regulation turn slowly. Although it was common knowledge that the manufacturers ‘gamed’ the energy efficiency tests, nothing could be done about it due to the power of the manufacturer lobby in Brussels.

Dieselgate finally tipped the power balance in favour of the regulators, and ‘real world’ conditions will be required from 2021.

The UK’s place

With the UK having left the EU, and looking as though it will ‘crash out’ with no deal, it seems likely that this will be the last time that ‘our’ statistics are included as part of the EEA’s work.

Whether this leads to a reduction in CO2 requirements in the UK is unclear. The UK Government appears paralysed between wanting to ‘act’ on CO2, and grimly understanding that there will be horrific economic consequences from leaving the EU without a deal at the end of the year. Maybe they will want to toss regulations out of the window in order to ‘cut costs’ (which in reality will just shift the burden to the population at large and reduce costs to the polluter)? Or maybe Michael Gove was telling the truth when he challenged the EU to an environmental race.

Words are cheap. Action has meaning. This Government has so far shown a distinct preference for the former.

Wales’ place?

As usual, Wales has very little say in what happens to this line of regulation in future, which is a UK matter. If the UK Government decide that they want to (indirectly) reward polluters by weakening the environmental requirements for new vehicles, there is nothing that the Welsh Government can do to stop it, despite there being a direct inherent contradiction with both the Act for the Well-being of Future Generations, and the constitutional obligation to sustainability.

So, as usual, we’ll just have to cross our fingers and suck up whatever’s decided the other end of the M4.

April 20 / ‘Hwyl fawr’ Twitter

I’ve long been intrigued by the interplay between the dark money that fuelled Brexit (amongst other nominally democratic events), and the use of social media to persuade and to influence.

I’m surely not the only person who feels intense disquiet about the use of money to spread lies and misinformation – and the seeming impunity of campaigns which willfully spread those lies to any kind of meaningful sanction.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the amoral position taken by the surveillance capitalism giants – such as Facebook (and by extension, Instagram), and Twitter – has led inexorably to an erosion of the polity in the UK and elsewhere.

I have taken to heart the maxim “be the change you want to see in the world” and have decided to significantly reduce my activity on Twitter. I have already effectively closed my Instagram account, and I closed my Facebook account in 2008.

My decision to reduce my activity on Twitter doesn’t come without cost. It reduces my influence within the networks I spent many years building up. It means that I’m less well informed about many of the things that I care about.

But I’m happy to remove my support for a commercial giant which constantly erodes the protections it offers for user data (this goes double now that we’re leaving the GDPR protection of the European Union). I’ve come to the understanding that every tweet I make, every comment I reply to, every link I post, is adding value to a company which has proved agnostic to the notion of democratic norms.

And I’m simultaneously becoming far more comfortable with a platform which is proving to be a viable alternative, albeit with much more growth needed before it comes close to the social functionality provided by Twitter. That site is toot.wales, and it’s an ‘instance’ of the open-source Mastodon platform.

I wrote about Mastodon a while back for the Institute of Welsh Affairs. TL;DR – it’s a site which duplicates much of the functionality of Twitter, but doesn’t allow advertising, doesn’t harvest your data and has effectively banned sexism, racism and hate speech.

I still have an account on Twitter, and I’ll use it to message people, and to promote my toots on Mastodon. But I reject the notion that I’m a ‘monetizable daily active user‘ with my data at the service of anyone with a chequebook. My ultimate goal is to stop using Twitter altogether, to fully embrace an open, free and respectful way of interacting with others.

Feb 20 / Bad customer service; it’ll come back to bite you

Our little girl was over the moon to receive her first bike. We’d decided to use The Bike Club, because we were supporting a ‘reuse’ economy, where the company sends out reconditioned bikes. Then, when you need an upgrade – pretty much a given due to the normal process of children needing bigger everything – you send back your bike, and get one of the correct size.

We paid our monthly fee happily for more than a year, and our daughter loved the bike. Not ‘girly’. A lovely design, and fully suitable for her needs.

Then – after Christmas – we saw that she needed a new set of wheels. She’d outgrown her bike, and we decided to take up on the stated offer of a replacement (bigger) bike. As advertised, and as confirmed via an email from one of the customer service representatives.

Except we didn’t get the bike. With no explanation, we were told that no bikes were available – contradicting earlier assurances. Lengthy periods went without any contact, despite our repeated requests for information. Our daughter’s birthday came and went – with no bike forthcoming.

Eventually, when we were utterly frustrated with the company, we asked whether it would be cheaper for us to cancel the contract and pay the £30 bike return fee, or wait until a total of 18 months had elapsed, in which case we’d have been eligible for a replacement with shipping paid for. No response.

In the end we just cancelled the contract. My complaints on Twitter resulted in them blocking me. Likewise on Linkedin. My polite response to the Founder and a request to connect to discuss our issues, was ignored.

If you examine the company profile, The Bike Club is listed as a Financial Services Company. They’re currently extolling the virtues of their product as an investment. Not a values-based organisation, but one highly focused on profit.

Picture of the Bike Club's LinkedIn page

My advice is to steer clear. Their claims of customer service – in our experience – can’t be supported. They have chosen to do the exact opposite of good practice in terms of public relations, which is to ignore complaints, instead of engaging with a genuine grievance.

Don’t use their service. Don’t invest. And advise your friends against.

Jan 20 / A love letter to the European Union

Dear European Union,

My relationship with you began on the day I was born, in the mid 1970s. As with all relationships, ours has evolved as we have grown together.

I was unaware of you, even as I travelled with my family to visit other Member States during my childhood, and into my teens. We went camping in France, took a bus to Italy (what an adventure that was!), and enjoyed an exchange visit to the north of Spain with our local outdoor education centre in Merthyr.

Through my early academic career I worked with fellow EU citizens in two of the UK’s finest academic institutions – I refer of course to Lancaster and Nottingham Universities – and I took cycling holidays through Norway, Sweden and Denmark one summer, and through Portugal, Spain and France the next.

It never occurred to me then to think about visa-free travel, or visa-free work, or the right to live and love in different countries. Why would it? I was merely exercising a right I had held my whole life. In the words of Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.

I left academia to enter the world of renewable energy – starting with a job in the south of Spain, and continuing with work in Machynlleth, Bristol, Newcastle, and Copenhagen. In each of these jobs I worked on or with European projects – in Machynlleth I was a partner in four projects simultaneously – and in Denmark I had the privilege of working for a European Agency, the European Environment Agency.

I learnt hugely from my colleagues from the sisterhood of European countries. Yes, from colleagues within the UK, but also from every country in the European Union and beyond.

In 2012 I left Denmark to return to Wales, where I still live today. Wales – you will know this – was a huge recipient of structural funds from the European Union. I suspect that we will come to regret placing our trust in the campaign to leave the European Union. Replete with impossible promises, sweet poison and lies, we will now turn to Westminster, in its wisdom, to ensure that our farmers are able to maintain their custodianship of land and language; that our environment maintains its safeguards so we may fulfill our obligations to the ecology on which we depend. Although Wales maintains a measure of agency due to our Senedd, I fear that the promises of ‘not a penny lost’ will prove to be as empty as the plans for the manner of our exit on the morning after – that terrible morning – the referendum.

I will regret the barriers that will – almost inevitably – be erected to trade in agriculture and fisheries, which will impact so heavily on our small, family-owned farms and fishing businesses. I will also regret the impediments to travel and live within our continent, and particularly the increased challenges faced by families in living with their loved ones. It saddens me that we now require our fellow (ex-fellow) citizens to apply for certification to live in our country – at their expense, of course.

But most of all I grieve for the young people who will face financial and administrative barriers to enjoy living and working amidst the many pleasures of our wonderful continent. Of course, many will still find a way to do so. But doubtless many will be put off by the change in our relationship, and the UK will be the poorer for that.

In finishing this letter, I want you to know that I wish I had done more to demonstrate your value to my fellow citizens. In some tiny way, I am also to blame for this break-up. My promise to you is that I will do everything in my power to help bring the UK back to the family of countries that is the European Union. If that path is one based on the United Kingdom joining as a state of four constituent countries, I would be delighted. If a different path seems more likely – a path that includes these four UK countries going their separate ways – then I will do what I can to ensure that Wales plays its part as an enthusiastic and responsible member of the European Union.

I love EU. One day we will be reunited.

Nov 19 / Can Wales lead the world in ‘safe’ social media?

Social media has energised the way in which we interact, communicate, promote and understand. As with any tool, it has the ability to be used for good, or for ill.

I don’t intend here to detail the way that social media is used to abuse, to pillory, to demean and to spread hate. Nor is this a treatise about whether it’s democratically healthy for social media to be used by political parties or corporate entities to micro-target individuals or small communities with messages which may only be loosely based on fact, or indeed a complete fiction.

Instead, I want you to take a moment to imagine participating in a social network free from hate; one which doesn’t answer to shareholders; and where paid advertising directed by surveillance capitalism is not possible.

Now I want you to take a step further; I want you to imagine that same network, where you can share a picture (same way as Instagram); share a blog post (same way as Medium); share a micro-blog (same as Twitter); share a video (such as with YouTube) – and all the content from all those different platforms is brought to you in one place.

Hang onto your hats – it’s already here! 

Unbeknown to most internet users, there’s a quiet revolution taking place on the fringes of the social web which merits close examination. 

Fed up with pleading to Twitter, Facebook, Google and other internet giants to take action on abuse and to act on genuine privacy concerns, the open source community has created solutions which herald the dawning of a new era of accountable social media.

And Wales could be at the vanguard of this revolution, thanks partly to some imagination and drive from a boy from Barry who made it in New York, Jaz-Michael King.

The Fediverse

Proposed Fediverse logo

Before diving into how to join the revolution, it’s worth talking about how the Federated Universe (Fediverse) operates.

Unlike the existing social media monopolies, the Fediverse has no central company controlling the flow of content, and deciding what to permit or ban.

Instead, there’s a plethora of small sites – ‘Instances’ – which operate semi-autonomously from one another, but which are linked (federated) so that content can be viewed simultaneously on all federated platforms. Authors retain ownership and control of their content, while citizens can pick and choose the content and people they wish to connect with, free from profit-driven algorithms and their associated echo chambers.

So somebody posting a photo on Pixelfed (a federated photo-sharing site, which looks and feels just like Instagram) will instantly share that image with all their followers, on whatever ‘Instance’ they’re based.

Likewise, someone posting a micro-blog on a federated account (such as Mastodon) will share that post with all their followers across all whole ‘Fediverse’.

No more hate?

Whilst it would be a stretch to say that hate has no place within the Fediverse, it’s certainly no exaggeration to say that it is a far more pleasant place than most conventional social networks.

That’s because most Instances have rules which forbid unpleasant behaviour. The decision about what constitutes acceptable behaviour is up to the administrators or the community of that individual Instance, but if unpleasant behaviour consistently appears unchallenged on a specific Instance, it’s possible that all other Instances could sever ties, effectively inoculating the rest of the Fediverse from the content that’s being posted in the ‘bad’ Instance.

Indeed this has already happened in July this year, where an Instance supporting far-right speech was blackballed by many other instances, significantly limiting its ability to interact with the rest of the Fediverse. The success and growth of the Federation as a movement has been significantly driven by the growing dissatisfaction and loss of trust that the international corporate networks cannot (or will not) manage, and that smaller, locally-driven communities are more able to effectively self-manage.

Wales leading? 

So – how could Wales be leading the charge?

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Enter Toot.Wales, the brainchild of émigré Jaz-Michael King. Toot.Wales is Wales’ own instance of the micro-blogging site Mastodon. Fully bilingual by default, it is also on the verge of deploying its first mobile app for Android (with ios development underway).

Toot is also the host for Wales’ own answer to Instagram, via Pix.Toot.Wales, and for a ‘lite’ blogging experience via Blogs.Toot.Wales.

I often see people on Twitter complaining about certain functionalities not being available, including the most basic need for a Welsh language interface; about tools to control or limit abuse, about access to one’s own data and the right to delete it or download it. 

My response is: leave the network. The influence we have with the owners of Twitter, Facebook or any other mainstream social media platform is vanishingly small. If complaints by users have implications on profit, they are unlikely to become a corporate priority. Regulation is possible, but is cumbersome, hard to enforce and likely to date quickly.

So we must vote with our feet. We have within our own hands, literally and metaphorically, the means to turn our backs on networks which value profit over privacy, and to champion an open source ethical alternative.

I believe that Wales can demonstrate to the rest of the world that it’s possible to take a stance on this issue. Already facing a crisis in media, we should no longer submit to the whims of global corporate giants. With so much of the information we receive being more or less completely out of the control of the people of Wales, this is one area where we genuinely can, and we should, be taking back control.

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You can follow David Clubb on Toot.Wales and Pixelfed.

Aug 19 / Goodbye Instagram; hello Pixelfed

I’ve been a big fan of the open source movement for many years. I can probably trace my interest back to at least 2003, which was the year I first installed the Thunderbird email software, followed a year later by experimenting with Ubuntu as the operating system for my laptop.

I think I would describe the experience as ‘not for the faint-hearted’ back then, but over the last fifteen years, the open source movement has taken incredible steps. Open source software now runs most of the world’s IT infrastructure, most household hardware devices and is continuing to develop apace. Ubuntu is now the only operating system that I use on my laptop. Free, fast and fully functional. I love it.

My awareness of open source issues has increased in line with my growing concern about the nature of ‘big data’ harvesting by corporations, with the expectation and intent of profit gained by using that data in amoral ways.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is one concrete example of how democracy itself is at risk from a cynical, cavalier use of personal data, which even now far outpaces the attempts of individual governments to regulate and control it.

Cambridge Analytica logo
Logo of the disgraced company

Like many people, I’ve had an Instagram account for years (a reminder – Instagram is owned by Facebook). Perhaps not a mega-keen user, but certainly uploaded plenty of photos, and presumably with a whole bunch of my personal data.

Today that’s ended. I’ve been experimenting with a new, open source platform for photo sharing called ‘Pixelfed’. It’s similar in look and feel to Instagram, and in rapid development. Unlike Instagram, there’s no way that your personal data can be used to sell advertising or to shift election results. It’s as wholesome a product as you can find within the photo-sharing space.

My experiment with the open source, distributed world isn’t restricted to photos. I’m also reasonably active on Mastadon, a federated version of Twitter which (like Pixelfed) does not collect data in order to derive financial gain. There’s even a Welsh version of Mastadon which connects to all the other users around the world, but is focused on the people and communities of Wales (my thanks to Jaz Michael-King for that!)

I believe that the open source movement has a huge amount to offer the people of Wales (and of course everyone else). The open source movement is transparent, offers low-cost, customisable solutions, and exhibits a number of values which overlap with the Well-being of Future Generations.

If Wales embraced the open source movement, I think we would save money, while simultaneously supporting our citizens to become more highly trained, more aware and more resilient. And by contributing code to the global commons, we would certainly be playing an even greater role in our quest to be a globally responsible country.

I’m currently thinking about how best to promote this issue in Wales – potentially with something like a draft open source manifesto – and I welcome fellow collaborators who’d like to work with me. I think that together we could build a movement to celebrate and benefit from the open source community, and at the same time take back a little bit of the control that we have ceded to the data giants.

Mar 19 / Reflections on renewables

I joined RenewableUK in June 2012 and left in March 2019. This blog post provides some reflections on my time with the organisation. To hear my thoughts on a wide range of issues, head to the Cardiff Podcast where I chat about climate change, feminism, the energy sector in Wales and my new venture, Afallen.

Today marks the end of my employment with RenewableUK, the UK’s pre-eminent not-for-profit trade body for clean energy, and the only one with a staff presence in Wales. Nearly seven years after my move from the European Environment Agency in Denmark, I’m taking my next steps in my career — this time, one that I’ve defined for myself (more on that in a future post!)

I’m taking the opportunity to reflect on some of the changes that have taken place over those seven years, and on the challenges that lie ahead. After all, although renewables are now one of the dominant forms of electricity generation, we still have to get to grips with powering our transport and heat with renewable energy if we’re to have any hope of meeting our legal and moral obligations to a low-carbon society.


The change

The sector has seen astonishing changes over the last seven years — both at a UK level, and in Wales. Most interesting for me is the change in political and media attitude to renewables over that time, and the divergence in approach to renewable energy between the governments of the UK and Wales.

‘Renewables’ in the media is usually a proxy to talk about onshore wind, a technology supported by the vast majority of citizens of the UK (demonstrated time and again by UK Government polls), yet one described almost invariably by the media as ‘controversial’. Perhaps in the same way as brussel sprouts on the plate at Christmas being ‘controversial’, in that a tiny proportion of the population are highly exercised by it; but not in the least controversial across the population at large.

Graph showing the change in support levels amongst the general public in the UK, from March 2012 to March 2018.

Despite my continuing frustration with many media outlets about their representation of onshore wind, the situation in Wales has greatly improved. In 2012 the general tone of debate was hostile, with a number of journalists — yes at some small publications, but also at national outlets — making little secret of their hostility. Perhaps this was partly down to the extreme politicisation of the topic, most notably by Russell George and Glyn Davies, which led to the famous protest outside the Senedd in 2011. 

However, onshore wind has now become accepted by most communities and the media in Wales as infrastructure necessary for the benefit of future generations. Again, as a proxy for all renewables, this is extremely important, because without widespread acceptance, we cannot take the steps we know are necessary in order to prevent the very worst impacts of climate change.

This is not to say that questions around the appropriateness of onshore wind are still not leveled — listen to my recent interview with Radio Cymru (with subtitles) where I field the assertion that wind turbines are ‘ugly’ — but this tends to happen less frequently. 

Policy

Policy in Wales has also seen huge changes over that time. Those with long enough memories will recall the discussions around the Silk Commission, and transfers of powers for consenting energy projects to Wales from Westminster. Indeed, our own members were not convinced by the idea, some preferring the idea of UK Ministers making decisions over the ‘lottery’ of local authority or Welsh Minister determination.

How times change. In the intervening years, in Wales, we have witnessed the adoption of the Environment Act and the Well-being of Future Generations Act and — today — the launch of the low carbon delivery plan. And simultaneously at the UK level, we’ve seen a cooling of support for funding renewables generally, and a huge political and policy surge for that most unpopular of technologies, fracking. As I put it in 2016, Wales and England seem to be very different shades of green.

Graph showing the change in levels of support for fracking in the UK from December 2013 to December 2018

Our members would, I suspect, strongly oppose any idea of consenting powers for energy projects making their way back up the M4. I posed the question in 2015 as to whether decisions taken by the UK Government were making nationalists of the business community. Certainly, insofar as the direction of travel of sustainability, their policies may well have had the impact of shoring up support for the institutions of government within the devolved administrations.


Wot no lagoon?

Probably the biggest disappointment during my time at RenewableUK was the decision by the UK Government not to provide financial support for the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project, at the same time as it was bending over backwards to guarantee eye-wateringly lucrative payments for the nuclear sector (and yes, the evidence shows that a policy environment supportive for nuclear is less supportive for renewables)

An image of the front page of the Hendry Review website

In 2015 I wrote — before the outcome of the Hendry review was known — that a Wales without lagoons would be poorer, dirtier and sadder. When the review was finally published by UK Government, it described supporting the Swansea project as a ‘no regrets’ option. Indeed. All the more baffling for the sector — particularly bearing in mind the support that the nuclear industry had been promised — when that same support was not extended to this global pathfinder. I described that decision as unjust, and the resentment engendered by it still lingers in Wales — and will continue to do so, I suspect, for many years to come.


Subsidy for a mainstream sector?

Few would argue that renewables have entered the mainstream as a major power producer. Indeed, those that would argue do so in face of the facts; in 2018 the output from renewables overtook the combined output from coal and nuclear. 

Fuel sources for electricity in the UK from 2008 to 2018 (excluding gas)

It’s a trend which looks certain to continue, with the costs of renewable energy continuing to fall, and with UK Government support for offshore wind guaranteed for the medium term under a Sector Deal. Given this strong support for our offshore colleagues, it’s all the more disappointing to still be waiting for any sign that our nascent marine energy sector will see any kind of revenue support. And equally disappointing that the cheapest forms of electricity generation — onshore wind and solar photovoltaic — continue to be excluded from competitive auctions for subsidy.

Let us not forget, in the discussion about subsidy, that fossil fuels in the UK receive subsidies of around £15bn per year on average. Offshore wind will receive £557m per year under the sector deal, and large-scale onshore wind and solar will receive zero.

Given the headstart obtained by the nuclear and fossil fuel sectors, it’s astonishing to me that they should receive any subsidy at all. I would love to see those figures reversed. Let’s invest in our future instead of propping up our past.


Heat and transport

If electricity is a job partly undertaken, what of heat and transport?

It’s no surprise that neither sector have decarbonised significantly since 1990, wedded as we are to the infrastructure that supports the processing and distribution of the fossil fuels which underpin our heat and transport systems. The Committee on Climate Change gave their suggestions for Wales’ emissions targets for 2050, and specifically highlighted planning as an area which could tackle both heat and transport. How disappointing, therefore, to see developments continuing to spring up around Cardiff with little or no obvious mechanism to transport people and goods, except for the private automobile. We seem to be putting an awful lot of faith in the laissez faire approach to market development in clean transport, and insufficient regulation into obliging our developers to make our communities genuinely sustainable.

That’s not to say that we haven’t made progress — the latest version of Planning Policy Wales is a major step forward. And yet those housing developers who obtained their planning permission many years ago, and have been sitting on their precious land banks; they will be able to build to the same crappy standards they’ve been using for decades, condemning the occupants to a lifetime of high fuel bills. What power does our Future Generations Act have in preventing this? I call for a sunset clause on planning permission in the built environment — or at least a requirement for developers to adopt the latest building standards when they finally get around to developing their sites.


Final thoughts

My final comment is to urge you as an individual — and as an organisation — to sign up to your trade body or union. Our sector would undoubtedly be the poorer without RenewableUK’s policy, advocacy, media and networking activity. Even though I will no longer be an employee of RenewableUK, I will be tireless in advocating membership for it. Whatever your sector, there is (probably) a union or a trade body for you. Your membership enables the functioning of that organisation, to the benefit of the sector.

As an organisation, we are as flawed as any. But what wonderful, talented, inspirational and committed individuals they are that make up RenewableUK, and what an amazing difference this organisation has made to the sector, and to our society. 

Wales, and the UK, are more prosperous, cleaner, and are stronger global players in the discussion around climate change because of the action of RenewableUK and other trade bodies in the sector — and, of course, because of the member organisations who make up those trade bodies. Colleagues in the energy sector, I salute you and your perseverance. My very best wishes as you continue to make this world a better place.