*This blog post was originally published by The Ecologist*
The sustainable energy sector is not a homogeneous group. It consists of renewable energy, storage and grid, sustainable construction, energy efficiency and transport. However, most organisations operating across this wide spectrum of activity agree on one thing; this UK Government has taken baffling, counterproductive and damaging decisions which are proving very costly. Not just for the thousands of jobs which are vanishing from the sector, but also for longer-term health impacts and environmental damage.
Shortly after the general election in 2015, the Conservatives engaged upon a widely-reported programme of eliminating or reducing measures which support environmental improvement, better air quality and more clean energy including:
- Big reductions in subsidy to renewable energy, whilst at the same time promising massive payments to nuclear energy and an ‘open door’ policy to fracking
- A complacent attitude to air pollution – and thereby the health of the public – supported by removal of tax advantages for low-emission vehicles and by lobbying at European level to water-down improvements for vehicle emissions
- Killing off the Green Deal, ironically just as figures were starting to show that it was becoming accepted as a viable tool for energy efficiency improvement
- Binning the requirement for new homes in England to be zero-carbon by 2016
A sector employing thousands in Wales, and tens of thousands across the UK, has been made to feel the irrational policy vacillation of a Conservative Government seemingly bent on an ideological experiment to destabilise the confidence of large parts of the energy sector, whilst simultaneously guaranteeing future price rises for bill-payers through colossal nuclear subsidy. Not content with eliminating the possibility of onshore wind deployment in England, the Government has cut deeply into subsidies for many renewable energy technologies across the whole of the UK.
Sectors which were preparing to be ‘subsidy free’ by the end of the decade now face hundreds of millions of pounds of investment write-off.
A reputation trashed
Internationally there is astonishment at the reduction in support for the renewable energy sector, with the direction of travel being described as ‘perverse’ by the Chief Scientist at the United Nations Environment Programme, and as ‘inexplicable’ by Quartz magazine. Our competitors on international markets must surely be pondering why, with renewable energy on the cusp of grid parity and playing a huge role in reducing energy costs across the developed and developing world, the UK seems to be enacting a policy based in the 1960s.
David Cameron leads a government which claims to want energy security, but is limiting the deployment of small renewable energy generators which provide systemic security by distributing risk across millions of roofs and is instead hobbling us to fossil fuel, imported from thousands of miles away.
The Prime Minister’s government claims to want clean energy, but is incentivising mostly coal and gas-fired power stations, and seems to be utterly heedless of the impact of pollution or CO2 on the health of our citizens and on the environment which will be inhabited by future generations.
And finally, the government claims to want to promote international action to mitigate climate change, an assertion dripping in irony as international commentators, as well as large numbers of delegates at the COP21 event in Paris, have expressed their bewilderment at the astonishing inability of the government to accept the damage being done to its international reputation through its trashing of the renewable energy sector.
Impacts on Wales
The consequences arising from the election of a Conservative Government in 2015 have been dire for the renewable energy sector, and for the sustainable energy sector more widely. And they also highlight the extent to which devolution has been unable to protect green energy companies in Wales from the full extent of an energy and environmental ‘omnishambles’.
Dulas, one of Wales’ renewable energy pioneers and a lynchpin of employment for mid wales, has issued warnings about the viability of their wind development activity. Mabey Bridge – a key manufacturing hub for Chepstow – gone. Southern Solar of Caerphilly – gone. Small companies are downsizing or disappearing in every corner of Wales as the impact of Government policy is realised. We even have David Cameron, a one-time supporter of tidal lagoons, questioning the viability – at a time when jobs in south Wales have never been more tenuous in the manufacturing and utility sectors.
The fact that Westminster still maintains control over subsidy and grid connections for many energy projects in Wales will ensure that we cannot reach our full potential as a clean, green economy which a vibrant sustainable energy sector. Amber Rudd’s decision to refuse consent for 640 MW of onshore wind projects in Wales within the first six months of the new Government is perhaps the clearest example of the power of Westminster’s veto on Wales’ clean energy aspirations.
A greener country
However there are some small glimmers of light for companies wanting to work in the sustainability sector which arise from decisions made by the Welsh Government.
Firstly our historically dysfunctional planning system is undergoing long-needed reform. The new planning regime currently being implemented should speed up the decision-making process for large infrastructure projects and prevent businesses, local communities and campaigners of all persuasions from living in a planning purgatory whilst the various layers of consent are dealt with.
Secondly we have a Welsh Government which has moved slowly but steadily in a sustainable direction. The historic lethargy of this movement has caused massive frustration for many citizens, businesses and NGOs in Wales. But the passage of legislation for Active Travel, for the Well-Being of Future Generations and for the Environment demonstrate progress towards a future for our children which could be significantly more benign socially, culturally, economically and environmentally.
Under these pieces of legislation we will start to see public sector organisations required to deliver improved walking and cycling facilities, obliged to deliver annual CO2 savings, and – most importantly – commit to delivering improvements to local populations on seven well-being goals, which require decision-makers to consider the needs of future generations, as well as our own.
No to fracking, yes to alleviating fuel poverty
The UK Government is busily imposing fracking – the UK’s most unpopular energy source – on communities across England, and has effectively banned onshore wind, which is one of the most popular and cost-effective forms of energy generation.
However the writ of UK Government does not apply to Wales, and we have seen a much more enlightened response from our own elected representatives who have voted unanimously for a moratorium on opencast coal mining, as well implementing a Ministerial ban on fracking.
We also have planning policies which enable renewable energy projects of between 10 and 50 MW to be submitted directly to Welsh Ministers, rather than to local authorities, in contrast to planning policy in England.
Wales’ performance on improved building regulation in the domestic sector has been deeply disappointing, and no better than in England, but it remains the province of Welsh Ministers. It could yet provide Welsh Government with the freedom to create a revolution in low-energy housing and commercial property, giving huge opportunities to architects and construction companies operating in Wales – and a prized ‘first-mover’ advantage for the much bigger market to our east.
Whilst the private sector has been spared the benefit of better energy performance regulation, the Welsh Government has been active in the social housing sector, requiring strong energy efficiency performance through the Welsh Housing Quality Standard, and alleviating fuel poverty using the Nest and Arbed programmes.
Wales has combined the legacy regulatory bodies of the Forestry Commission, Environment Agency and Countryside Council for Wales into a single entity, Natural Resources Wales. The organisational remit is “to make sure that the environment and natural resources of Wales are sustainably maintained, sustainably enhanced and sustainably used, now and in the future”.
Natural Resources Wales has certainly suffered from some growing pains, but the consensus amongst almost every organisation that I interact with is that its performance is good and improving. A pro-active, problem-solving culture is starting to develop within Natural Resources Wales, which has proved extremely helpful for developers of energy projects. The likelihood of obtaining environmental consent has not necessarily increased, but the efficiency of the process has been much improved.
Whilst it is difficult to compare the performance of Natural Resources Wales with the English equivalent, we have – at the very least – avoided the controversy and potential conflict of interest seen in the Chairmanship of Natural England by the treasurer of Policy Exchange.
Wales is a country on a journey. Historically under-performing on a wide range of social, environmental and economic measures, we have a long way to go until we can truly call ourselves a global leader on the environment. So – for the time being anyway – it’s not quite a utopian paradise.
However, the direction of travel is clear. An early move on charging for carrier bags, improving the decision-making in planning, requiring public sector bodies to consider the well-being of future generations in their decision-making, requiring legally-binding cuts in CO2 emissions, improving cycling and walking facilities and infrastructure, and making things tougher for polluting energy sources, are all hugely positive signals to the green business community. To that extent, Wales is, indeed, open for business.
Conditions in the renewable energy sector just at the moment might seem particularly bleak, but good times are coming for the sustainable energy and environment sectors, and that means that good times are coming for us all.