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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Presumed consent would immediately accelerate the deployment of community energy in Wales. The barriers would lower on a number of fronts:
Reduced planning risk would incentivise more communities to consider developments in their area
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
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.
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.