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Wales’ renewable energy vision in contrast to England’s slow progress 

26 October 2023

A breath of fresh air: Wales’ renewable energy vision in contrast to England’s slow progress

Colour us impressed! 

Last week, the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales launched the Preparing Wales for a
Renewable Energy 2050 report
making recommendations to the Welsh government on how to deliver their target of 100% renewable electricity generation by 2035.

This builds on work by Arup, Mace Consult and a consortium of the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), the Centre for Sustainable Energy and Dulas.

Knitted through the report is some wonderful, fresh thinking about how barriers to renewable energy deployment might be removed, and the pipeline of projects accelerated. In the context of the sluggish regulatory regime for renewable energy in England, where essentially nothing has changed (for the better) for about a decade, and schemes are caught in 15-year grid connection queues, it’s an absolute breath of fresh air.   

Meanwhile, on this side of the river Wye, the government just rejected an amendment to the Levelling Up Bill to remove the de facto ban on onshore wind (with solar the cheapest form of electricity generation, supported by 83% of the population) and ensure parity with other renewables. It’s reason? Because it doesn’t want to. 

Community engagement key to unlocking renewable energy support 

For our part of the project, at CSE we collected a snapshot of public opinion in communities of how the public felt about the deployment of renewable energy using our Future Energy Landscape (FEL) approach.  If we had to boil our conclusions down to two sentences it would be: 

  1. Who owns and benefits from the wind turbine spinning above your town (or the solar farm glinting at its edge) hugely influences how you feel about it.   

This not-surprising finding leads to the obvious step that if we want to increase public support for renewables and significantly increase deployment, we should do all we can to boost and support the development of community energy and jointly owned projects and secure local benefits. 

  1.   People are likely to support renewable energy development in their communities if you involve them in detailed discussions at an early stage  

Again, it’s not surprising when you think about it. Participatory engagement processes like our FEL workshops have huge potential to build energy literacy, nurture informed consent for the deployment of renewable energy and refine proposals to meet local concerns and aspirations.  

Future Energy Landscapes 

We know there is widespread public support for expanding renewable energy. The Future Energy Landscapes approach is a way of involving local communities in how and where that happens around them, the types and scales of renewable energy which might be acceptable to them, the landscape impacts they’d accept and how they might benefit. 

We set the community the following challenge: what proportion of your communities energy demand do you think you could meet from renewable energy generation around you? We provide unbiased resources so people learn about the issues, and sufficient time and autonomy to consider the pros and cons of different options. And we support them in developing a shared understanding around what would be acceptable in their community. 

When the issue of renewable energy is approached in this way, ambitious community scale energy plans can be developed. And because the workshop participants have gone through this thought process themselves, they own the outputs and are more likely to support local plans or policies based on them. 

 Localising a distant problem

In thirteen sessions run, eleven communities identified the potential to meet their community’s total annual electricity demand entirely from local renewable sources. Eleven expressed majority support for onshore wind. That’s amazing! 

The FEL process works because it localises the distant problem of how to decarbonise our energy system down to the scale of a community. It invokes narratives of local self-sufficiency, independence, resilience and pride. These things are attractive in the current energy and cost of living crisis and in a period of austerity.  We’ve found these narratives to be resonant in almost every community, but even more so in rural mid Wales.  

To me, these Welsh villages and communities felt almost like the rugged republican mid-west in America. Proudly self-sufficient and distant from any centre of government, be it Cardiff or Westminster. Frame community engagement for these places around the idea of exporting renewable electricity to England, I dare you! 

National Infrastructure Commission recommendations to Welsh Government includes key recommendations from CSE’s work 

We’re proud to see the extent to which NICW have run with these insights in their recommendations.  

For instance: 

  1. Bringing forward primary legislation enabling the ownership of a renewable energy scheme (whether commercial or community owned) to be a material consideration in the planning system, creating a statutory definition of community energy, and enabling planning authorities to mandate the benefits which local communities receive from renewable schemes. 

This is somewhat of a sacred cow within planning legislation, that the ownership of a proposed development is not something a council can take into account in deciding whether or not to grant consent, with the result that community and commercially owned energy project must be treated the same, even though for the public, they are totally different animals.  Likewise, for understandable reasons, a financial contribution can only be sought from a proposed development where it solves a problem directly caused by the development. 

These restrictions arise from past scandals where planning permissions were “bought” and “sold”, bringing the planning system into disrepute. Applying these principles to community energy projects has however led to the crazy situation of a planning consent being quashed for a community energy project on the grounds that too much weight was given to the community benefits arising from it. Community energy projects (owned by Co-operatives and Community Interest Companies) are all about capturing benefits for local people and local communities.  

They deliver true community benefits and have legal structures which restrict what the profits can be spent on and prevent the asset being sold. In my book it seems entirely legitimate that the greater local public benefits of community energy should be considerations in deciding whether planning permission should be granted. No-one is retiring to the south of France on the proceeds of a community energy project. 

If planning policy could give permission for a community owned (and only a community owned) wind turbine or solar farm, it would be game changing in terms of leveraging community support to expand deployment.  

  1. Continuing and expanding public engagement on climate change and renewable energy to improve energy literacy and build awareness and support for renewables at the local level, using participatory tools like FEL. 

We’ve found that when approached in this way (starting with a blank page and menu of what might be possible), communities will develop ambitious plans for the deployment of renewable energy which often go far beyond meeting their own needs. With this approach, most rural areas could become self-sufficient in local renewable electricity generation, whilst maintaining public support.  We’re already delivering FEL sessions for Parishes, Community Energy and Climate Action Groups in England at their request, keen to look at how they might contribute to renewable energy generation.  

  1. Piloting a ‘presumed consent’ regime for majority community-owned renewable energy developments in the two Welsh Freeports, to test the principle of giving community energy projects permitted development rights.  

A great idea.  From a meeting in a pub it took Ambition Energy, a community group on the edge of Bristol eight years to turn their idea for a community owned wind turbine into spinning reality. It’s only down to the sheer persistence and determination of this group that it happened at all. Many other groups would have given up long before. 

 So provided there’s some way of safeguarding protected habitats and species, and other minimum safeguards, why not make the process easier and quicker? 

  1. Fast-tracking proposals to repower wind sites if they offer 20% community ownership  

Again, why not?  

There’s lots of other, great stuff in the report. No brainer recommendations, like calling for a review of the Building Regulations to mandate the use of renewable technologies and battery storage in all new developments. 

And other changes which lean into the narratives we’ve found around independence and self-sufficiency such as a call for the creation of a Sovereign Wealth fund to reinvest funds in Wales. 

Plus, practical recommendations like the creation of a long-term vision for energy in Wales to 2050, informed by a public engagement campaign. Recommendations to speed up grid planning, make it more strategic and to create a pooled planning resource for energy. And upskill local planning authorities on energy issues. 

These are all great and we hope the Welsh government take the recommendations forward. Overall though, a big reason it’s so invigorating to read a report like this is because of the policy paralysis we’ve seen in England, and the pussy-footing and politicking around both onshore wind and solar.  

In England, the Energy Bill has just been made law.  This commits to establishing the Future System operator a new body which will enable a more strategic approach to grid planning, and update Ofgem’s remit to consider net zero as part of its decisions.

These changes are all helpful, but don’t do anything to help remove the blocks within the planning system, or fully deliver on the potential of community energy.  

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