The journey from Anglesey to South Wales is always a tough, tiring but rewarding drive. The temptation to drive past Flintshire into England and fly down the M6 is always there, to cruise and switch off, losing only 4 minutes in total drive time.
It is also a stark reminder that networks and infrastructure in Wales were not built to cater to the native population, but to extract goods and materials out of the country eastwards.
I thought it worth the detour to see the beauty of the natural landscape as I headed for my second visit to this annual conference.
The conference, aptly named “Future Energy Wales,” brings together experts, innovators, and policymakers to discuss the future of energy in Wales. It was an opportunity to delve into the intricacies of Wales’ energy sector, and its broader implications in the context of the UK government’s commitments to Net-Zero emissions.
I left the conference last year thankful to RenewableUK for organising a fantastic and insightful event (with tip-top catering), that instilled a great sense of confidence in our ability to meet these great challenges head on. However I left with questions unanswered; is the rhetoric for real, will ALL of Wales truly benefit from these activities? Or will Wales be left high and dry once again, with our resources taken from us, leaving us with the scars.
This year, while equally thankful to RenewableUK for a seamless and highly professional conference, I left with slightly more concerns…
Despite an increased attendance of delegates and stalls, the energy at this years’ conference was somewhat flatter than twelve months ago.
I was surprised at the intense focus on wind power for an event labelled ‘Future Energy Wales’, given the highly abundant opportunity of other technologies in Wales, from Solar to tidal, hydro, hydrogen, wave power and exciting new nuclear opportunities.
With a jam packed exhibition, speaker and delegate list from across the wind sector, there seemed room for more variety.
Reading through Future Energy Wales’s fantastic and informative information pamphlet’ given to delegates, however, sub-titled ‘The Critical Role of Welsh Wind Power’, this was somewhat explained.
The estimated electricity demand for Wales in 2035 has been set at 29TWh, according to the Welsh Government’s recent consultations, with wind power predicted to contribute the lion’s share.
The conference was about to take place against the backdrop of a turbulent time for the renewable sector. A recent high profile wind auction by the UK government failed to attract any investment from developers and no new offshore wind farms were secured, despite there being the potential for 5 gigawatts of projects – enough to power 8m homes a year.
The UK governments’ price was set too high, and its recent retreat on some of its commitments to Net Zero, and promises to open up new oil and gas fields for exploitation, cast a wide and foreboding shadow over the event.
This troubling shift, coupled with the Welsh Governments’ resistant stance against Westminsters’ rhetoric and backtracking, an upcoming general election, and an ever complicated and antiquated devolution settlement that nobody is happy with, begins to explain why the event was a slightly more subdued and anxious affair this time around!
To kick-off the conference, I was excited to see Julie James, the Welsh Minister for Climate Change, join RenewableUK for a conversation about Wales’ ambition and interests. The talk struck a frustrated but optimistic tone, covering topics such as UK and Welsh Gov tensions, and the innate ability of Wales to lead the way in offshore floating wind. Very informative and important, I thought to myself.
I decided to ask a few questions on ‘Slido’ (an online question and polling app for conferences) about certain aspects of Welsh gov. activity and devolution. I was not surprised that one of my questions was deleted before it could be voted for by other attendees (I assume this did not pass the ‘review’ stage).
The deleted question was – ‘The Crown Estate is Devolved in Scotland, why is Wales better off having the profits from the Crown Estate, flowing into the UK Treasury and the Royal Family, and not to Wales for a democratically elected Welsh Government to use as it sees fit?’
I asked this, as it is official Welsh Government policy that they believe the devolution of the Crown Estate, according to Julie James herself, ‘would bolster our efforts in Wales to reach net zero. Reinvesting profits in Wales could create thousands of well-paid, green jobs’.
According to First Minister Mark Drakeford, “Devolution of the Crown Estate…the money from the natural resources here in Wales will be in the hands of the people of Wales, and that’s the best way to proceed”.
Was this not a fair question, at a ‘Future Energy Wales’ conference? Especially given between 2020 and 2021, the Crown Estate saw the value of its holdings in Wales increase from £96.8 million to £603 million, and is only expected to boom once floating offshore wind leases are offered to developers… The current value of the seabed rights is estimated at £5 billion, and six newly awarded licenses could generate up to £9 billion over the next ten years.
The next talk was a ‘conversation’ with Gus Jaspert, the managing director of Marine, at The Crown Estate.. Maybe there was a glitch last time, I thought to myself, I’ll try again.
I submitted the question 4 times, and 4 times it was deleted. Each time the question was worded slightly differently, once removing the words ‘Royal Family’ entirely… No luck.
I also submitted the question, diplomatically as I could, at another talk with the Crown Estate present in the afternoon, where it was deleted again – twice.
I was surprised to see a similar question in this latter talk make it through the ‘review’ stage, it asked if the devolution of the Crown Estate is something Wales should consider. Had someone slipped it through the net somehow I thought..? It became the most voted for question in the list… Until it was inexplicably deleted just before it could be asked by the chair…
Why is RenewableUK stifling legitimate questions regarding the future of energy in Wales, and the enormous windfall profits The Crown Estate are set to make? I thought to myself…
I was very pleased to see talks and questions being raised continually over the two days, towards the importance of ‘supply chain’ development around green technologies. But considering the fact the climate minister J.James herself, in a recent Senedd Plenary, lamented the current lack of devolution of the Crown Estate to Wales, resulting in a situation whereby Wales is powerless to stop large highest bidding multinational companies use their own supply chains and workforces instead of local ones, resulting in massive lost incomes to the local economies in orders of magnitude higher than the price of the seabed leases. Why therefore, am I not allowed to ask about the devolution of the Crown Estate to Wales, how is this not directly relevant..?
I was both surprised and pleased to see a broad and centrally placed exhibition stand for the Crown Estate this year (unlike last year where they were absent), so that I could ask these questions myself. When asked, each worried looking representative passed me onto a senior member of staff until I was given a list of predictable yet somewhat patronising and easily debunked rationale for the current status quo to be maintained.
I don’t know what was more frustrating, the flawed logic being given to me, the complete lack of mention of the matter by anybody from the UK or Welsh Gov during the talks, the stifling of attendee questions on the subject, or the fact that the Crown Estate exhibition staff, hadn’t anticipated or experienced any of these questions from other attendees, or government or industry representatives. Was it just me?
Perhaps not… as a recent YouGov poll saw that 75% of the Welsh public would want the Crown Estate devolved, the Welsh Government want it, and a recent report by the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales (NICW) has called the current setup ‘illogical and bizarre’.
There were other concerns that I felt, not of things said, but of things unsaid.
I counted 5 times I heard the phrase, ‘West coast of the country’ by industry leaders. By west coast, they did not mean Ceredigion, and by ‘country’ they did not mean Wales. Is this all Wales is to these leaders, the Western coastline of the UK?
I only remember the words ‘North Wales’ being used once during the two days, and a highly voted question about connectivity of the grid to ‘Mid-Wales’ was ignored repeatedly during a panel session with national grid representatives, to audible groans from the auditorium. The focus seems to be very tight on the Celtic sea, and the pending boom of development coming soon. Which is obviously exciting and crucial for Wales, but will it truly benefit Wales long term, and all of Wales at that?
Additionally, for all of the talk of ‘energy’ and the admittedly very important discussions regarding supply and connectivity, I did not hear a single person speak of reducing demand, or changing attitudes and behaviour around our energy usage, which is widely accepted as the first stop in our journey towards Net Zero… There is no profit in reducing demand perhaps..?
Despite my concerns, I must commend RenewableUK on a fantastically organised and professional conference, with an impressive speaker list, that delved into the nitty gritty of the wide range of important matters regarding the next industrial green revolution in Wales. I do, however, feel concerned that certain considerations were not given enough daylight, whilst some others were kept in the shadows altogether!
Driving back through industrial South Wales, the drowned valleys of mid-Wales, and the windfarms of the North coast, I was reminded of the fact that sadly, Wales has a long and painful history of exploitation of our natural resources, goods and minerals, leaving behind the scars and little in the way of infrastructure and development from the profits.
My main worry is, will the development and exploitation of our coastlines for off-shore wind be any different..?
What is clear however, and it is our belief here at M-SParc, is that Wales could be at the forefront of the next industrial ‘green’ revolution, showcasing how a small country can lead the way in reaching net zero and showcasing revolutionary technology in the 21st century.
We must demand, not ask, that the benefits of this revolution truly reach Wales, so that we can all prosper and profit from these developments, and not just be left with the scars.