OVER 200 representatives of business, government, academia and a few community organisations crammed into a Cardiff conference to look ahead at energy in Wales on Monday (Dec 15). The overwhelming message was one of frustration at the widening gap between the amazing potential for renewable energy in Wales and its realisation. David Jones for Marine Energy Pembrokeshire flagged up the resource lying all around Wales that is currently untapped.
Our tides and waves could potentially power Britain and Pembrokeshire is among the best sources. Even a modest 30 MW installation could provide 2000 person years of employment and be operational in a few years. The meeting called often for vision and leadership quality from government. Lack of progress was also caused by a cobweb of regulations that choke progress in their dark embrace. Plaid Cymru assembly member Alan Ffred chairing the event, said that planning rules should insist on community benefit, as this would have cut through many of the complexities.
He said: “It is incomprehensible that community benefit was not included as a requirement, a tragic wasted opportunity.” The industry itself took a share of the blame for not getting communities on their side at the outset. “Wind is now toxic in Powys”, said the chair of Powys against Pylons. “I am not highly qualified like all the other speakers, I am just a fairly good dairy farmer, but I cannot get a wind turbine for my farm now, people are so hostile to them.” Examples of companies who had got their public relations right were also cited, such as Swansea Bay lagoon. They were the exceptions. This contrasted with public opinion.
Peter Davies, also from Pembrokeshire and chair of all things to do with sustainable futures at the Welsh Assembly reported on the million conversations exercise across Wales. He said: “People’s first concern with energy is cost, but climate is a high second when it comes to long term concerns. People like renewables and are against coal and fracking with mixed views on nuclear.” This feeling is shared in Pembrokeshire according to an online petition for the county to move to renewables.
A well known climate denier MP also spoke, and presented a barrage of unreferenced figures showing that climate change had stopped years ago, stating we have enough fossil fuels for hundreds of years, and the thing to do is to get on with fracking and coal mining in the UK as these produce cheaper energy. Gerwyn Williams for UK onshore Gas Group presented graphs showing vast sources of gas to frack. His company is seeking investment on the stock exchange without success.
Interestingly, both the climate denier and the gas chief were ignored by the rest of the meeting. Renewables were what everyone was interested in. Another huge barrier turned out to be the national grid. We heard that even a very modest 18kW community hydro cannot go ahead because there is no grid capacity. Mid Wales including Ceredigion and Powys are especially grid poor. All the capacity has been prebought up by giant solar farms which may or may not ever be built.
Maxine Frerk from Offgen who regulates the UK grid said this did not sound right and she would look into it. Plaid Councillor for Ceredigion, Alun Williams spoke to her afterwards and arranged to meet with her and Western Power, which is the grid operator blocking progress, to get to grips with the challenge. The conference was called because of the possibility to allow Wales to take control of power generation up to 350 megaWatts, which is up from the present 50MW.
This increase in powers is a result of the promises made to avert the Yes vote in the Scottish referendum. Conference speakers favoured this increase in powers, but with the right leadership. Welsh Labour Government Minister, Carl Sergeant spoke warmly about community renewables. He acknowledged we needed a Wales based planning inspectorate to cope with the increased powers. He refused to answer any questions with any detail, figures, dates or actions, much to the frustration of the waiting media.
The day had started with the coffee running out early. The prestigious attendees from governments and corporations queued in vain after their long journey for the expected cuppa. This, sadly, epitomised the lack of ability in Wales to rise to its potential. Alan Ffred, chair of the Environment Committee said: “Frustration is a word we are hearing a lot today.”