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Author: gweinyddwr

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?

No alt text provided for this image

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.

Oct 18 / Infrastructure in Wales

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.

Gridlock

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.

An electricity pylon at night with stars in the background

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.

Opportunity

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?

A cyclist on a small road in the hills, fading into mist in the distance.

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.)

June 18 / Swansea Tidal Lagoon; an unjust decision

If we burn our bridges on tidal lagoons, our future will be a little colder and a little darker”.

I wrote these prescient words in August 2016 as Charles Hendry was carrying out his research into the viability of tidal lagoons in the UK.

Fast forward two years, and we now know that Wales’ most iconic infrastructure proposal, the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, will not be receiving UK Government support. The statement, given to Parliament at 5pm on 25 June by Greg Clark, dashed the hopes of hundreds of thousands of supporters from across Wales and beyond, and has plunged the prospects of the project into doubt.

The announcement seems to have been based on a six-page ‘value for money’ assessment, which has — to put it generously — inconsistencies in its assessment, and is a true wonder of brevity given that it took 81 weeks to produce following the receipt of the Hendry Review.

The project, almost uniquely in Wales, received all-party support in the National Assembly, and also benefited from strong backbench support in Westminster. On receiving the all-clear from the Hendry Review — which called the Swansea project a ‘no regrets’ option — many thought that the project would receive the go-ahead.

It was not to be, and the hopes of developing a global manufacturing and supply chain company, operating from southern Wales, with all the employment and skills opportunities that entails, have been lost.

The already-wealthy regions of London and the south east of England benefit hugely from infrastructure spend via Heathrow and Crossrail. The citizens of West Wales and the Valleys, one of Europe’s poorest regions, could therefore be forgiven for smelling more than a hint of neglect having seen the cancellation of electrification of rail beyond Cardiff, and now the rejection of a tidal lagoon.

On taking office as Prime Minister, Theresa May talked about the ‘precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’; and about being driven not by the interests of a privileged few. Many in Wales will wonder about the value of that bond, and the nature of privilege, when they look at wealth being distributed unto wealth in London, but see little evidence of it trickling westwards.

What could have been

It’s worth remembering what could have happened had the original timescale of Tidal Lagoon Power been met.

The proposed timeline of development of the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon

Having received its Development Consent Order in 2015, the project was more or less on schedule — pending environmental permits from Natural Resources Wales, and the decision on awarding public subsidy from UK Government.

Had both the other pieces of the jigsaw been delivered that year, the project could conceivably have been generating electricity early in 2019 — just next year — with completion later that year.

In stating that only 28 long-term jobs would be created as a result of the development, the office of the UK Government in Wales has stretched credulity beyond breaking point.

Tidal Lagoon Power’s economic analysis — based on modelling carried out independently by the Centre for Economics and Business Research — suggest that the local and national benefit would have been significant.

During construction, Swansea would have seen the creation of 2,232 direct jobs, and long-term there would have been 181 indirect and induced jobs. Swansea would have seen the impact of an estimated 100,000 visitors per year. With local hotel capacity overwhelmed, major tourism developments would have been likely — as well as the prospect of local AirBnB hosts benefiting from short stays.

The opportunities for further development would have been impressive, with a prize of up to seven new manufacturing facilities in Wales helping contribute to 23,000 FTE jobs in Wales on completion of four project in Welsh waters. With a potential global market, the potential for job creation could have reached still further.

Response

There has been an anguished response to the decision from many quarters.

Chair of the National Assembly’s Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, Mike Hedges AM, called it a ‘huge missed opportunity’, and ‘deeply disappointing and extremely concerning’. Stephen Kinnock, MP for Aberavon, called the announcement ‘devastating’.

Simon Thomas, Plaid Cymru’s environment spokesperson, said that Greg Clark was ‘not just pulling the plug on this one project but on the whole potential of tidal range energy in Wales and the UK’.

The Welsh Conservatives called the decision ‘depressing’. And Grenville Ham, leader of the Green Party in Wales, summarised it with “Wales wants a dam, UK Govt doesn’t give a damn”.

From the business community, FSB Wales said they were ‘bitterly disappointed’, South Wales Chambers of Commerce called the decision ‘short-sighted’ and a ‘bitter pill’.

We have yet to hear from Tidal Lagoon Power itself, so we can only speculate as to whether the company will proceed with the Swansea — or any other — tidal project.

Conclusion

The UK Government said that the project did not meet the three tests of having dependable electricity, provided by low-cost and low-carbon sources.

In making this decision, the UK Government seems to have used double-standards on comparing the lagoon with nuclear. For example, in only considering capital costs, the decommissioning cost of nuclear has been conveniently air-brushed from the equation. That’s 100 years of employment plus capital expenditure quietly deleted. In comparing output in TWh, and then bringing up Capacity Factor, they have conflated two issues which don’t belong together.

The comparison with offshore wind, a mature market which benefited from generous subsidy to become established, is also unfair. The proposition with the lagoon is not solely based on electricity cost, but the potential to generate a whole new industrial sector.

And on cost, how on earth did the UK Government come to the conclusion that the cost to Welsh householders would be £15,000, when the Hendry Review said that the cost would be a pint of milk to every household in the UK per year?

It’s as if there are two lagoons in Swansea.

The first, promoted by the company and recognised by every Welsh political party and the independent Government-commissioned Hendry review, produces affordable electricity for a hundred years, kick-starts a local economy, and supports a manufacturing and supply chain to employ thousands.

The other, recognised only by the UK Government, employs 28 people and bankrupts householders with unsustainable electricity bills.

Whilst the truth is surely somewhere between the two, most reasonable people will recognise where the balance lies.

This article was first published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs and does not reflect the views of my employer.

June 17 / The Clubb Doctrine: presumed consent for community energy

I’ve been working in the renewable energy sector since 2004. Of the thousands of people I’ve met during that time, I’ve never encountered anyone who opposed community energy.

Even the anti-wind die-hards don’t generally object to community energy — as long as it’s not wind, natch.

You’d think that with widespread public, civic and political support for community energy it would be ubiquitous. But it’s not. Not even close.

Less than 10 MW of Wales’ 2,300 MW of renewable electricity is community-owned. That’s a miniscule 0.4%.

Community energy in Wales has struggled to make much headway

The problem

The problems facing community energy project developers are legion. Not only do they encounter the same issues as commercial developers, such as negotiating planning, consenting, grid and financing issues; they have to do so with considerably less professional support .

Those projects which have seen success are characterised by years of hard work from pioneering individuals who have doggedly pursued projects at no personal gain and against overwhelming odds. Take a bow everyone involved with Community Energy Wales.

Community Energy Wales; struggling valiantly against the odds

Sadly there are literally hundreds of projects which never made it to the grid. Many of these were perfectly viable, had huge local support, and could be generating low-carbon electricity right now, returning revenue to the local community and nourishing entrepreneurship, skills and employment.

Rejection of a community energy project has sometimes been for fairly unenlightened reasons, such as the perception of visual impact by some of the local councillors who form the membership of planning committees.

Appealing these decisions is often too much to bear for the meagre resources of a community project, and the idea, and all the good things embodied by it, can fall.

The barriers, predominantly in the planning system, which for the most part serve to protect and enhance our built environment, are crippling the ability of our communities to benefit from the energy generated from our natural resources.

The current policy levers have manifestly failed to add sufficient weight in the planning system to enable community energy projects to flourish. We need a new solution.

The solution?

Here’s my suggestion. Let’s reverse the normal way of doing things. Instead of considering genuinely community-owned projects as unwelcome intrusions into the landscape, let’s help them through the process. The time has come to put issues of project ownership into the planning system.

Projects such as community energy installations — and indeed commercial/community partnership projects — potentially have such intrinsic value to society that we should challenge the planning system to say why they should not take place.

Of course having a different planning process for community energy alone would be a needless bureaucratic burden if the existing system were able to provide the same outcomes. So I’m not proposing a separate system.

Instead we should give material consideration to the ownership of renewable energy projects, such that considerable additional weight is given to a wholly community-owned energy project, or one which delivers significant local benefits through joint ownership models.

We need to support community energy — and also commercial projects of all scales

I’m most definitely not saying that we should make things any more difficult for commercial developers. The terrible imperative forced on us by the impacts of climate change mean that we should be pursuing every reasonable measure to mitigate future greenhouse gas emissions — which means being resolute in our determination to proceed apace with renewable energy deployment at all scales, including the very largest projects offshore and onshore.

But community energy’s lack of success suggests that it needs a little extra if it’s to deliver anything substantial over the next few decades.

Test it

There are big conceptual challenges with a change to the system of this nature. So one possible approach is to take a discrete geographic area and pilot the approach.

This area could be a local planning authority boundary, an enterprise zone, a city region or other target geography.

Swansea Bay City Region. A potential target for community energy innovation? (Photo)

Examples that spring to mind are the Swansea Bay City Region, the three energy enterprise zones (Ynys Môn, Haven Waterway and Eryri), the south Wales valleys (covered by the Ministerial Taskforce), the Dyfi Biosphere or Pen Llŷn.

What would it mean?

Presumed consent would immediately accelerate the deployment of community energy in Wales. The barriers would lower on a number of fronts:

  1. Reduced planning risk would incentivise more communities to consider developments in their area
  2. A greater material weight in planning would increase the number of successful projects, and lower the cost of all projects due to lowered cost of finance
  3. Any area which was identified as having better planning opportunities for community energy would attract significant interest, investment and expertise from within and outside those areas, increasing the number of project applications

I believe that nascent models of commercial-community partnership should also be encouraged under this system. We could generate a very lively debate about the level at which ownership triggers the ‘material weight’ condition — although the detail of these important sub-aspects of the Doctrine would necessarily have to be explored in much greater depth once the principle was accepted.

Potential issues

The impact of a proliferation of community or joint-venture projects would need to be carefully and strategically managed.

Local residents would need to be involved at all stages of the development of such a pilot, and the route to an easier ride through planning should require a quid pro quo of a binding commitment to local procurement.

Strong links with the regional further education providers would demonstrate the career pathway for young people, further enhancing the positive reputation of the sector.

However the potential downsides would — I believe — be strongly offset by the multiple advantages of having a thriving community energy sector.

The philosophical barrier to progress

When I’ve previously suggested presumed consent for community energy projects to people in the planning profession — I have form on radicalism — it has been met with something akin to disbelief.

One of the fundamental tenets of planning is that projects should be judged entirely on their merit. Ownership of a project clearly has no bearing on planning issues such as visual impact.

This means that — in suggesting that ownership of a project should have weight in planning — I am explicitly stating that one of these fundamentals of the planning system should be rejected.

I don’t shy away from this.

The exercise of planning policy in the community energy sector thus far has served the exact opposite. It has fed the process, and nearly obliterated the outcome.

The planning system is not a divine precept. It is human-created, and should exist to serve the people.

How do we make it happen?

A pilot community energy zone will not happen of its own. We need to provide informed opinion which can challenge the philosophical objection to ownership having a material weight on a project. We also need evidence on how and why the current system is failing the sector

I suggest that Community Energy Wales works with as many organisations as possible to build the case. This will almost certainly require the opinion of academic planners, practicing planners or legal experts, possibly supported by a crowdfund.

With a well-crafted opinion, the sector will be in a place to make a strong case for a pilot zone.

No doubt there will be plenty of devil in the detail; but the potential prize for the people and communities of Wales is unquestionable.