Wales has been a major source of energy for the UK for many decades, but it sees no future in extracting fossil reserves – or burning them for power. As Wales publishes a new strategy that moves it towards a low-carbon regionally-based energy industry, Janet Wood spoke to Lesley Griffiths, minister of environment, energy and rural affairs at the Welsh Assembly, for the May 2019 issue of New Power Report
The view of gas in Wales is not favourable. On generation, gas-fired plants are seen as a problem for Wales. They are responsible for a lot of its carbon emissions, producing power that is used elsewhere in the UK. What is more, they do not employ many people and they are seen as providing little benefit for the Welsh economy.
Ministers would be quite happy to see them disappear – after all, security of supply is a responsibility for the UK government, not Wales.
In an interview with New Power Report, Lesley Griffiths, minister for environment, energy and rural affairs, at the Welsh Assembly, says: “It’s raising our emissions. If you look at the carbon reduction for the UK we are behind – because of our gas plants.” The figures bear that out. Just 20% of generation in Wales comes from renewable energy – but that would be enough to power around half of Welsh consumption with renewables.
Griffiths is not proposing to close existing power plants – Wales has no powers to do that. But she says: “We’ve said all along that renewable energy needs to be at the front. It’s about making sure that we steer towards renewable energy.” So she responds with a firm “no” when I ask about planning permission for new plants, and when I ask about refurbishing or upgrading them, she reiterates: “Our steer is that we are not encouraging it. I’m sure we do have powers and we would have to look at it on a case-by-case basis.”
That was highlighted in a policy document, ‘Prosperity for All: Towards a Low-Carbon Wales’, published earlier this year.
The document also sets out policy for halting gas extraction. Griffiths says: “In the National Development Framework coming through we have changed Planning Policy Wales, for example, so that we no longer allow for fracking,” Griffiths says. “It’s about making sure renewable energy action is at the fore.”
The firm shift to renewables was set in place more than a year before the Low Carbon Wales document was published. “I set a renewable target back in December 2017,” Griffiths notes. “Electricity consumption by 2030 should be 70% renewables – and that is consumption not generation, that is a very particular,” she says, because it is important to avoid distorting the industry.
In moving away from large gas plant, Wales wants eventually to move towards a more distributed energy future.
The Welsh government’s Economic Action Plan, launched in December 2017, has set a similar direction, with a shift away from a sector approach to economic development, to one focused on place. At the time of launch, this was described as the ‘foundational economy’ – care, food, housing, energy, construction etc – the industries and firms that are there because people are there. In Wales this accounts for four in 10 jobs, and £1 in every £3 spent.
In the energy sector that translates into a view of the electricity and gas grids not as top down, but in terms of interconnected mini-grids focused around the 33kV transformer. Balancing becomes a local and regional activity and centralised generation becomes an ‘insurance policy’ providing backup.
What would that encompass? Can onshore wind find approval in Wales, in the way it has in Scotland?
Griffiths says: “I’m finding people’s views are turning. When there is a local application it can be quite difficult but in general people see the benefits of it. You get people who complain about the view but … everyone wants to put their lights on and [generation] has to go somewhere. While I appreciate that when it’s in your area people get upset, generally I think views are changing around it.” And she adds: “Particularly in Wales, you can see what extracting fossil fuel has done. I personally think that people don’t want to see extraction any more.”
Onshore wind was a focus for development initially in Wales, which took an early approach to identify the optimum areas for wind development But it has proved problematic where wind farms were clustered. “We have to think particularly what we can do there,” says Griffiths.
In some cases, the clustering of wind farms became a barrier because of the need to upgrade transmission lines as well as installing turbines. “That’s been clarified now,” says Griffiths. “I’ve met with quite a few developers I have had a discussion about consenting regimes to try to clarify that.” It has been partly eased by a new approach that parallels Whitehall’s approach to very large projects, where associated development is included in the development consent application from the start.
“When I was planning minister and energy minister it was very quickly apparent that there were conflicting policies,” Griffiths says (she had planning responsibilities until last year) and she wants to do more. “I was hearing that Scotland was easier to go to than Wales and I’ve been very keen to find out what are the difficulties are to try to understand them and to make sure that our consenting regime has parity to elsewhere in the UK.
“I wouldn’t say it’s done. What I have done is to make sure speak to developers hear their concerns and then link them in with Natural Resources Wales. So that is ongoing. I think a one stop shop would be easier for people to understand what’s required. They don’t want to throw money at things if they think there is going to be a problem with consenting, although of course planning has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
“Now we have planning policy Wales 10, which I think has made it much clearer… but I still have developers telling me that it is not as clear and straightforward in Wales as it is in Scotland so I have had discussions with Scottish ministers and I have linked up the developers.
“We want people to come to Wales, we want clean renewable energy. If we are going to meet our clean renewable energy targets we need them to come to Wales and do that.” It’s “definitely an open door”, she says.
Solar is very popular in Wales and solar farms pepper the countryside but again, Griffiths says it has not had the consistent support she would want. The current financial support regime is not as helpful as she would like. “To me solar was a no-brainer. It’s simple to do, the tariff was really good, and we were seeing them everywhere – in my own constituency the local authority had started to put them on council housing. I think it was incredibly short-sighted to then remove the tariff and stop that.
“The tariff regime is so important and the UK government holds those levers and I have had discussions with [climate change minister] Claire Perry MP about the need for a new tariff.
“A lot of this stuff coming from the UK government is affected by ideology and I think it’s a shame that we have lost so much because of that.” Turning back to hydro, she says, she has visited several hydro plants in North Wales, and had talks with farmers who see it as an option, but projects were halted when the UK government lowered the tariff. When I ask whether plans to require companies to offer export tariffs will alleviate that problem she says, “No I don’t think so. It’s a sore point.”
The next low-carbon plan, due in two years, will be more focused, and could also include a boost for offshore wind and coastal offshore renewables. Large development is expected to come with initiatives to build a local supply chain – in tune with Wales’s Economic Action Plan, which calls for companies in Wales to contribute to a suite of aims: decarbonisation; innovation, entrepreneurship and headquarters; exports and trade; high quality employment, skills development and fair work; and R&D, automation and digitalisation.
“I think we have always been very innovative around renewables technology and the important thing is to keep it here to make sure we get the economic benefits here,” says Griffiths.
Griffiths says: “Community energy is an area I am particularly interested in,” and she regards it as part of the change towards a regional energy system.
That is the direction of travel, but practically, at the moment, Griffiths translates that as “1GW should be locally owned by 2030”. And the most immediate target “is that by 2020 – that is, next year – at least an element of every renewable energy project should be owned by the community. I personally think when people have got a part of the system it gives them a different view of energy and the way they use it.” Griffiths speaks about visiting a hydro project in North Wales and talking to community owners, and “the woman was so excited – to me that is so empowering”.
If a regional, place-based, energy industry is important for Wales – and I am told that could encompass offshore projects all along Wales’s coastline providing power for coastal towns – what are the next steps to achieving it?
She explains: “It takes a long time to bring a community project together and it needs a lot of handholding. I have put more funding into that. I’ve been in the post for the last three years, and in that time, we have had 15 projects come to fruition, so we are seeing an increase and I do see it as part of the mix.
“But we have been looking at the evidence base on how we can deliver our renewable energy projects, looking at policy and research to make sure we can assist.”
The funding will give practical help to communities, such as managing the paperwork and doing the necessary preparation. Officials have been running workshops for interested communities. Most often, she says, communities have been interested in wind and hydro.
Is there a role for the public sector in managing Energy in Wales?
Interest in public ownership seems to have waned due to problems in the supply sector. Griffiths says that was considered a few years ago. “One of the things that I was being called on to do was for the Welsh government have an energy company. Officials engaged a great deal a couple of years ago and we got the impression that that was not what the Welsh public wanted.” She says: “I’m sure the public sector does have a role in supply but it’s more about making sure that the public trust it [energy]. Certainly when we had those workshops it was looked at with I the outcome was that it wasn’t what people would want.” However, she doesn’t rule it out completely. “We have Welsh Water, which is a not for profit company and the model is really good.”
She thinks that model is worth examining “because of the trust that people have in Welsh Water. When they look at their bills they accept a higher bill because it helps other people,” because the water company has a social tariff that is accepted by other users. I ask about public ownership of the trading platform or the system operator but Griffiths says: “I’m not developing that policy. Utility regulation is not a live issue at the moment.”
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