Wednesday 17 March 2010

Energy Statement

When the Assembly Government published its Green Jobs Strategy, I noted that it was a good strategy, but did not fill me with much confidence that it would actually achieve the objectives. My main reason for saying that was the document was full of words like 'promote', 'support', 'encourage', and 'facilitate'.

Reading the same government's 'Energy Policy Statement' yesterday filled me with a sense of déjà vu. Once again, we have a document full of very worthy and supportable aspirations, but the firm proposals for implementing them are likely to prove inadequate.

The idea of being able to meet the whole of our energy needs from renewable sources within 10 to 15 years is a challenging target, but one which we should certainly adopt. The question is, however, is the content of the Statement going to be enough to achieve that? I doubt it, and for a number of reasons.

The first, of course, is the question of the Assembly's powers. Some of the necessary actions will require decisions elsewhere, over which Wales has no control, and seems unlikely to gain control in the same timescale (they're not included in the powers which would flow to Wales following a successful referendum under GOWA). That is no excuse for not doing other things, but inevitably places limits on what Wales alone can achieve.

The second is the degree to which reduction in energy consumption depends on individual actions taken by people across Wales, something which the Government will urge and encourage, but cannot guarantee.

The third is funding. A number of the actions set out in the document require additional funding in the short term, even if there is a good payback in the longer term. How achievable will this be at a time of financial constraint? Or, to ask the same question in a different way, how much priority will be given to this spending?

The fourth, and probably the most significant, is that the construction of new renewable energy plants is left to the private sector; and there is nothing in place which will prevent the private sector from deciding to invest in more profitable opportunities which are not low-carbon – such as the CCGT power station currently being constructed at Pembroke. No amount of urging and encouragement will outweigh the profit motive if these key decisions on what generating capacity is to be built and where are left to the private sector.

One other point that struck me as I read the document is that it deals at a very high level with total consumption, and shows how Wales' total needs can be met from production in Wales. What was less clear to me is whether the needs can be met at the time that they arise – i.e., does the plan guarantee that power will be available as and when needed to meet peak demands, or is there an unstated dependency on the rest of the National Grid (i.e. England) supplying power (presumably from less 'clean' sources) to meet the peak demands, with clean Welsh electricity being exported off-peak in return?

I have a rather uneasy feeling about the answer to that question. The plan seems to allow for the 'intermittency' effect when calculating the total amount of electricity to be generated, but even if we really do succeed in producing twice as much energy as we are expected to need, there is no guarantee of always being able to meet peak demands. It's not an impossible question to answer in producing an energy strategy, but the question of 'storage' of electricity doesn't seem to figure at all, and without that, I'm not entirely convinced that the plan is achievable at a Wales-only level.

That all sounds pretty negative as a reaction, but actually, the statement is a very useful step forward in showing what is achievable. The weaknesses which I see it in it highlight the need for two things which the plan does not currently propose. The first is a much more directive and interventionist approach to deciding what capacity should be built and where, and the second is an integrated approach to 'storage' of off-peak electricity in order to able to meet peak demands.

And both of those are, in one sense, closely related. They underline that energy strategy is too important to be left to the whim of the free market.

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