Renewable energy and the sixth Senedd


March, 2021

Rhys Jones, Director of RenewableUK Cymru, shares his views on renewable energy in Wales and the sixth Senedd. 

I’m not a fan of pre-election manifestos.  They’re a distraction from what should be an ongoing dialogue.  Adding to my natural reticence ahead of the sixth Senedd election on 6 May is the extraordinary pace of the renewables industry.  It’s like playing the game ‘Grandma’s Footsteps’.  Every time you turn around it’s like, a new technology or project has snuck up behind you!

So, to pause for a second.  The good news is that Wales is on track to meet its first carbon budget. Overall, emissions have fallen by 31% since 1990.  However, we’re not on track for an 80% emissions reduction by 2050, let alone the net zero target to which we’re now committed.  The 70% / 2030 renewables target in Wales is eminently attainable but is by no means a slam dunk. 

More broadly, Welsh Government’s challenge is that key powers intended to do the heavy lifting on decarbonisation are reserved.  This partly informs the ‘whole society’ strategy which focuses Wales’ approach to decarbonisation on the pledges made by individuals, businesses, and organisations to make their contribution – the ‘Team Wales’ approach.

The second Low Carbon Delivery Plan, expected in November, is going to need to set out clear sector by sector strategies but even before we get there, the incoming Welsh Government will hopefully have given an indication of its Energy priorities.  

So as RenewableUK Cymru welcomes the First Minister’s commitment to using “wind, wave and water” (sun??) to put climate change “at the heart everything we do” (if re-elected), how does this translate to an action plan for renewables in the next Senedd?  What should we look for? 

Here are my five (but definitely not exhaustive!) pillars which I think we need to underpin Wales’ future energy system.

1 – Workforce Skills
Writing about women in STEM professions recently, I described RenewableUK and its members’  commitment to addressing the under-representation of women in the renewables industry.  Tackling this will be a defining feature of the just energy transition and goes to the heart of capitalising on a renewables boom in Wales.  

Government, the renewables industry, and educational institutions must work together to spark pupils’ interest in the green jobs which will proliferate in the decades ahead and equip them with the skillsets to succeed.

Much has been done and is being done to address this but given the net zero timescale and the havoc wrought by the pandemic on young people’s plans, this should be viewed as a generational challenge and part and parcel of the decarbonisation roadmap.

Yes, attracting investment is critical but everything starts with skills.  That means harnessing all our talent.

2 – Energy networks
The electricity grid will get smarter with homes and businesses contributing system balancing capability, borne along by market disrupting new entrants.  However, the incoming Welsh Government will need to level with the public about the practical implications of decarbonising Wales. 

If Wales is to have a boom in renewables, the grid’s motorways and A roads need to be strengthened. 

Offshore is constrained by the scale of challenge presented by achieving 40GW by 2030 and marshalling multiple generation assets while minimising onshore impact.  Onshore wind has abundant potential in Mid Wales but, a decade on from ‘that’ consultation on a network solution, still nothing to connect to. 

Informing the needs case must of course pull in local, data driven mapping of future energy demand but I am concerned that we don’t get too mired in matching Welsh megawatts generated to Welsh megawatts consumed.  Renewable energy generated in one part of Wales can help other parts of Wales, as well as other parts of the UK to decarbonise.  There’s value in that.

This is also about the adaptations to the gas network which will be needed if and when Hydrogen figures more prominently in the energy system.  There will be infrastructure challenges in accommodating increasing quantities of blended Hydrogen, dictated to an extent by policy choices about Hydrogen’s role, ranging from the ubiquitous to the more niche.

These are massive, intrusive, systems engineering challenges and will need to be well progressed by the end of the next Senedd term. 

While the incoming Welsh Government will not have power to consent, for example, the high voltage transmission network, it must, with decarbonisation as the guiding principle, be a galvanising force for insisting its UK stakeholders’ attention is trained where the sun sets as much as where it rises.

 3 – Planning
Given UK Government’s commitment to reviewing the National Planning Statements (NPSs), there will be potentially significant changes in planning and consenting renewables in England (and >350MW projects in Wales) so there needs to be coherence between Welsh and UK planning and consenting regimes. 

‘Future Wales 2040, The National Plan 2040’ and Planning Policy Wales 11, provide a national policy framework perhaps more suited to current times than the NPSs and a certainty to back up the DNS regime (at least to developers of sub 350MW projects).

There are anomalies between the respective regimes which might potentially disadvantage Welsh renewables projects of over 350MW.  For example, DCO scale projects (e.g., Awel Y Môr Offshore Wind Farm) need to work in tandem with Wales’ marine licencing which is devolved to NRW via Welsh Ministers.  Granting of marine licences are not currently time limited by statute.  It would help if they were.

With the DNS regime increasingly well established, the advantages it delivers can be cemented by the introduction of the Welsh Infrastructure Consenting regime.  This will give renewables developers in Wales the ability to secure statutory powers while maintaining the DNS process as an option.

Floating offshore wind  is also a colossal opportunity but not an area in which Wales can necessarily drive timescales.  Given the scale of the opportunity and the predicted trajectory on cost of deployment (i.e., coming down very quickly), the incoming Welsh Government will quickly need to use its influence to push the Crown Estate for more clarity on the timing, size, and speed of future leasing rounds for floating wind in Welsh waters.

4 – Ports
UK Government has signalled its intent for coastal areas to benefit from ‘levelling up’.  Renewables are of course in the vanguard.  However, different parts of the UK have different requirements and are moving at differing speeds.  This should not blinker decision makers to the very significant bearing many Welsh ports may have on the UK’s decarbonisation roadmap across several sectors and technologies. We need to be sure that Wales’ recently acquired powers over ports is adequately resourced so that we pack the biggest possible punch when it comes to bidding for infrastructure adaptation funding.

UK and Welsh Governments also need to quickly agree the parameters within which Welsh ports can apply for free port status, which is a limited offering.   If there are reservations about free ports, these either need to be resolved or there needs to be a comprehensive package for ports and the communities and the supply chains they serve.

The bottom line is Welsh ports should not be disadvantaged either in relation to ports outside Wales or in relation to their being able to access all available support.  Time is of the essence.

5 – Onshore investment
When we talk about the boom in renewables, we are talking about a fundamental role for the sector in supporting a balanced, green recovery from the pandemic which can benefit all parts of Wales.  This is an easier argument to land in the case of say, fixed and floating offshore wind.  There’s a chain of logic linking skills, R&D, supply chain, O&M, and export opportunities which is attractive, and makes for compelling political narrative.

Onshore is less easy but…

As the cheapest and most ‘shovel ready’ technology it can potentially continue to make a significant contribution to Wales’ decarbonisation roadmap. 

Vivid Economics research suggested that deployment of the UK Committee on Climate Change’s recommended 35GW of UK onshore wind by 2035 could deliver 1,600 jobs for Wales – with jobs in the O&M sector carrying an average GVA per worker of £180,000 (compared to an average GVA worker of around £45,000).

Following considerable improvements to the planning framework for onshore wind, the incoming Welsh Government should explicitly state the role onshore can play in a fully decarbonised power system by 2035. 

At the same time, stakes taken in projects on Welsh Government’s forestry estate could accrue revenues to benefit all of Wales and provide clear answers to the perennial vexed question of “Who benefits?”

To conclude, as I said, this is by no means exhaustive.  I could have mentioned five other things, and then five more after that. 

But in stumbling for the most appropriate cliché upon which to finish, I’d probably venture that the sixth Senedd term will seal the fate of the fist Wales ultimately makes of net zero, and with that the benefits it stands to gain from the Energy Transition.  RenewableUK Cymru and its members will be doing all we can to play our part.