More than Gwynt y Môr

The news that construction work is scheduled to start on the Gwynt y Môr wind farm next year is something that I welcome. It is one thing to get planning permission, but not all schemes that get planning permission actually go ahead. Scarweather Sands, off Porthcawl, is an example of one of the smaller schemes in Round 1 of the offshore wind development programme that failed because the economies of scale did not stack up compared with larger projects.

Now it is true that I have grave reservations about the way that Gwynt y Môr has been progressed, but I am not saying that because I disagree with the decision or because I think that holding out for a public inquiry would be a way of preventing it from being built. I'm sure many, if not most others who were pressing for an inquiry wanted it for precisely that reason, but for me the only thing that is wrong is that the people of Wales have no say in the decision making progress. It's our country, and we should be the ones who decide on how we produce the electricity we need through our National Assembly.

This is a project of a size (it will produce 1.95TWh a year) that can make a significant contribution to north Wales' own energy needs. The map below shows just how big it is (although please note that the number of turbines planned for the western side of the site was reduced to the dotted diagonal line to lessen the visual impact from Pen y Gogarth) compared with the North Hoyle windfarm to the south east and Rhyl Flats to the south.


But this is only the start of what is currently being planned; for Round 3 of the offshore wind development programme will bring even more electricity ashore to north Wales:


In total the installed capacity of the windfarm zones shown on the map bringing electricity ashore to Wales is 3,715MW ... which would equate to at least 12.5TWh of electricity a year. Wales' total electricity demand is less than 20TWh (the published figures of ~24TWh are wrong, I've had this confirmed by DECC). So wind power off the north Wales coast can easily produce more than enough electricity for north Wales' needs.

This confirms what I've said a number of times on this blog and elsewhere: that Wales can produce more electricity than we need from renewable sources. The main reason for this is because we have a high level of renewable resource capacity coupled with a relatively low population density. Scotland and Ireland are in the same position. But in England things are more problematic because the ratio of their renewable energy resources to their population is much lower. For that reason I had thought that nuclear power might, perhaps, be justified in England as the lesser of two evils ... provided of course that they were prepared to pay for it. I fully expect Wales to be independent by the early 2020's, and the last thing I want is for us to be lumbered with a huge clean up bill for a nuclear power station that was built primarily to produce electricity for England.


But I came across something yesterday that has made me rethink that position. A fortnight ago the Offshore Valuation Group published its first report. This is what it says:

The Offshore Valuation Group came together to answer a central question for the United Kingdom: What is the value of our offshore renewable energy resource?

What we found has exceeded our expectations. In harnessing 29% of the practical offshore renewable resource by 2050:

•  the electricity equivalent of 1 billion barrels of oil could be generated annually, matching North Sea oil and gas production and making Britain a net electricity exporter;

•  carbon dioxide reductions of 1.1 billion tonnes would be achieved by the UK between 2010 and 2050 – a major contribution towards 2050 climate targets;

•  145,000 new UK jobs could be created by industry.

The next four decades of technological development could enable us to harness a practical resource ten times the size of today’s planned deployments. Integration with neighbouring electricity networks though a ‘super-grid’ could provide access to a single European electricity market, enabling the UK to sell renewable electricity across the continent.

We assessed the extent of the practical resource through a detailed mapping process based on five electricity generating technologies: wind with fixed and floating foundations; wave; tidal range; and tidal stream. The full practical resource - 2,131 TWh/year - exceeds current UK electricity demand six times over.

Executive Summary
Full report

I am a passionate advocate of renewable energy, but I must admit to being taken aback by this conclusion. But I've skimmed through it and it seems not only to make sense but, if anything, to be a little conservative particularly on tidal power. And neither has it been produced by some Mickey Mouse think tank, it is a collaboration between all levels of government and the major industrial players, namely:

•  The Department of Energy & Climate Change
•  The Scottish Government
•  The Welsh Assembly Government
•  The Crown Estate
•  Energy Technologies Institute
•  Scottish & Southern Energy
•  RWE Innogy
•  E.ON
•  DONG Energy
•  Statoil
•  Mainstream Renewable Power
•  Renewable Energy Systems (RES)
•  Vestas
•  Public Interest Research Centre

In recent weeks I have, both here and here, pointed out that previous framework for nuclear power that had been set up by the Labour government has markedly underestimated the long-term cost of nuclear power, particularly in terms of waste and decommissioning. The new government does seem to be showing some willingness to properly address this issue.

But it is all too easy to see how the issue can again be fudged if the ConDem coalition changes its mind. Their programme for government clearly states that nuclear can only proceed if it gets no public subsidy, but the coalition partners put the emphasis in rather different places. I think it would be fair to say that the Tories are in favour of nuclear power, but think it can be done without public subsidy because, to paraphrase only slightly, "all private enterprise is wonderful and therefore doesn't need public subsidy". The LibDems are generally against nuclear power, but think that they don't need to make it a point of principle because no company could afford to take the responsibility for the full long-term costs and still make a profit.

So the agreement will hold for a year or two, and we might even get to the point of granting the energy companies permission to build nuclear plants ... but remember Scarweather Sands. However, when it becomes apparent that no company can afford to go ahead and start nuclear construction there is bound to be wholesale panic amongst those who have convinced themselves that nuclear has to be part of the UK's energy needs ... and the knee jerk reaction will be for the government to limit the future decommissioning liabilities of the nuclear companies so as to enable them to build them anyway.

That is the scenario we must now avoid sleepwalking into. From the point of view of the nuclear industry it won't be fair, because it isn't a level playing field. The reason why renewable energy has been able to get off the ground is because we have taken the political decision to subsidize it. Those in favour of nuclear energy will say, "Why can't you subsidize us too?" ... and that will be a hard argument to resist.

At the end of the day, the deciding factor will be whether we have any real choice. If we think that the UK cannot get its energy from renewables, then we will have no choice but to resort to an element of nuclear power ... whatever the costs to future generations. So the name of the game is to show that there is a viable alternative. That's what the Offshore Valuation Group's report has done.


Everything depends on how quickly we invest in renewable technologies, and then roll it out at a rate that will meet demand. But the idea is shown in this graph:


The y-axis is GW of installed capacity. If we utilize the practical, renewable energy resources available around this island, we can produce all the net electricity we need by 2032, and go on to meet our total energy requirements (i.e. replacing the gas we use for heating and industry, and the oil we use for transport) by 2045.

We will have this power in perpetuity, not reliant on imports of uranium from the rest of the world, and with no ongoing problem of what to do with toxic nuclear waste or the worry of what would happen if others got hold of it. This is a prize that is worth fighting for, and Gwynt y Môr is a significant step towards it.

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Anonymous said...

that's lovely and all very well, but why are we in Wales still paying over the odds for our electricity if we are producing so much of it? Who are we subsidising? Or whose pockets are we lining?

MH said...

It's another example of Wales being shafted. We produce more electricity than we need, but we get charged more because the UK National Grid operates a scale of charging dependent on how far away the consumer is from the centre of consumption rather than where the electricity is produced.

Jonathan Clark wrote a good article (with links) only a couple of weeks ago that touched on the subject on the Plaid Cymru Monmouth blog, here:

Royston Jones said...

I must be missing something.

We already produce more electricity than we need yet - as with water - we are expected to not only give it away to England but also to pay more for it ourselves!

These turbines will be produced outside Wales and the benefits we shall see will be minimal or zero. One can already guarantee that the jobs involved in sinking them will go over the border. (Why is it so difficult to insist on local labour for major contracts in or off Wales?)

And once they're up and turning, how many jobs then?

Then there's the talk of power for north Wales. Doesn't the electricity produced go into a UK national grid?

Finally, there's the issue of ludicrously subsidised means of generation that produce nothing when the wind doesn't blow, such as the coldest, stillest winter days.

If Wales is to benefit from green energy then we need a different approach involving (inland) hydro schemes and (coastal) lagoons, with the equipment produced in Wales, the construction using Welsh companies and, wherever possible, avoiding the 'national' grid.

Otherwise we are simply being ripped off again as we always have been. Calling it 'Green' don't make it any more acceptable.

Anonymous said...

jobs won't just go over the border to england, they'll be filled by cheap polish or other eastern european workers once the construction contracts go out. we can then look forward to more "polski sklep" shops and continued unemployment whilst we pay for it in high energy costs and subsidies to greedy foreign based companies. EU integration anyone?

MH said...

RJ, Of course the National Grid pricing structure is unfair to Wales, as it is to Scotland. It is designed to cater for the majority at the expense of the minority. But the most pernicious effect is that enables large power stations to be sited remote from where the electricity they produce will be consumed, irrespective of the greater cost of transmitting the electricity over a longer distance. The siting of nuclear stations was based on that principle, but equally it means that a huge gas fired station can be built in Pembrokeshire.

The construction contract has been awarded to Siemens, who will also maintain it. The additional construction barge is being built in Korea. So yes, the bulk of the work will be done outside Wales. I've said before that we in Wales should have been much more proactive in trying to get companies like Siemens and Vestas to set up factories here. But we've missed the boat on this one. I only hope we learn and try and get something in place for the much larger Round 3 developments. £2.2m of contracts in Wales out of £2bn is only a tiny sliver of the pie.

As for the Grid, we can talk of a "UK National Grid" for commercial purposes, but the reality is that we need to be part of a much larger physical grid. Intermittent renewables benefit from being part of a more extensive grid. We need to connect to Ireland, Scotland needs to connect to Norway, Ireland needs to connect to Brittany, and England needs all the connections it can get. Within Wales we desperately need better north-south interconnectivity.

As for subsidy, it's hardly "ludicrous". We're paying for it because we would have to pay far more in the long term if we don't deal with climate change. That's what the Stern Review was all about. We also have to protect ourselves from price rises in fossil fuels. If we think they've gone through the roof in recent years, it's nothing compared to what will happen in future.


Anon, would you describe Welsh firms that won overseas contracts as "greedy foreign based companies"? The point is only that we have not tried hard as hard as we could have to get the big players to set up factories in Wales. Let's do better in the next round. But we do have the start of a long-term industry. If we chose to develop Holyhead as the prime base for Irish Sea renewables it could become what Aberdeen was to the North Sea oil industry.

Siônnyn said...

My sources tell me that it is already too late for the UK - Peak energy blackouts by 2015 at the latest. Should we in Wales be subject to these, seeing as we will be net exporters of electricity? No of course we shouldn't, but we will! (Unless we have declared UDI by then). Should be a central plank of Plaid's next prospectus!

Water, Energy, Tourism, first rate workforce - we have so much to offer. We used to have coal and Steel, but they closed those. Why do we always sell ourselves short?

I have been a vocal opponent of land based Wind farms - not because they are unsightly (personally, I don' find them so) - but rather because, despite much research and digging, including FOI questions to Jane Davidson's department, I am unable to find any evidence that they produce any peak-time energy (and that is the only thing that counts) than the cost of manufacturing and deploying them - oh! and decommissioning them. In fact, from the figures I have seen, as they only have, at best a life of 25 years, I doubt they even make up the carbon cost of the peat that they displace!

Offshore wind is a different proposition altogether! The wind offshore is much more reliable, and generally stronger, than onshore. So I applaud Gwynt y Mór.

But beware - there is a new 'renewable' energy source that seems to have the government's eye at the moment - Bio-Fuels. It seems like a good idea, but bear in mind it takes about 30 years to grow a worthwhile tree, and about 10 minutes to burn it. So will they be planting a new tree every 10 minutes? I think not. And if it were to be truly renewable, they would have started 30 years ago! More about this later when I have more information about the plans for 2, or possibly 3 biomass generators in Baglan.

Oh and another thing - the ash is classed as hazardous waste, and has to be transported by road to Swindon for disposal. How renewable is that? And the trees are scheduled to come from Alaska, and will need road transport from whichever dock they choose, to the power station. Very Green!

benbryant said...

Nice post! If you're interested, I wrote a piece about whether Gwynt y Mor will bring jobs over on my blog, Climate Wales:

MH said...

Thanks Ben. I've just had a look at your post and flicked through Climate Wales in general. It looks good, and I've added it to the blog list.

On the subject of jobs, I agree that GyM won't bring many long term jobs to Wales on its own. But as the Round 3 Irish Sea zone is developed there will be many more turbines, and we would reach the point where it is necessary to have a maintenance base somewhere in the Irish sea for them all (including those in Ireland, especially if Arklow Bank phase 2 gets going). It's worth fighting for that to be in north Wales.

The cutback in size from 760 to 576MW was done in response to concerns about visual intrusion (the diagonal line in the picture) but why they cut back the northern boundary as well is a mystery to me.

One thing I tried to find but couldn't was the value of the Crown Estates lease. Do you know how much the RWE led consortium have paid or are paying for the 50 year lease?

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