Our Senior EIA Project Manager, Rachel Kennedy, reports on the drivers behind a surge in wind energy activity in Wales.
Changes to the policy and regulatory regime have given renewed impetus to renewable energy generation in Wales in the past year. New renewables capacity has faltered since 2015 without Government market support and without devolved controls projects regarded as strategically important have for a long time bypassed the Welsh planning process, whereby decisions concerning ‘Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects’ (NSIPs) were referred to the relevant Secretary of State in Westminster. Key legislative provisions in the form of The Planning (Wales) Act of 2015 and Developments of National Significance (Wales) Regulations 2016 now give Welsh ministers the final say on major planning decisions. The devolved Welsh Government has been consistently more enthusiastic about wind energy than its UK/English counterpart, and this is reflected in the growing number of schemes under consideration.
Within the new regime, wind farms projected to have an installed capacity upwards of 10 megawatts are treated as Developments of National Significance (DNS). Of the 44 DNS applications made under the process, all but three have related to energy production, mainly generated by wind and solar farms. Due to the time taken to conduct environmental impact assessments and the other steps necessary within the process, the first applications are only now coming to fruition. Here at Dulas, we are already involved with three DNS projects and anticipate expanding to meet the steadily growing demand.
Other items of devolved Welsh policy impact the planning process. Under the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act 2015, planning applications must demonstrate how proposed developments address the aspirations of the Act. These are to improve ‘the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales by taking action, in accordance with the sustainable development principle, aimed at achieving the well-being goals’. There are seven of these goals, that see Wales as:
- Globally responsible
- More equal
- Made up of cohesive communities
- Enjoying a vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language
The final piece of the planning jigsaw, the National Development Framework, has finally been formally adopted today (24 February). Originally intended for adoption in September 2020 but delayed by the impact of the pandemic, this sets out Wales’s twenty-year strategic plan. The published draft version says ‘Wales can become a world leader in renewable energy technologies’. Significantly, the first source of renewable energy then listed is wind, as in ‘Our wind and tidal resources, our potential for solar generation, our support for both large and community scaled projects and our commitment to ensuring the planning system provides a strong lead for renewable energy development, mean we are well placed to support the renewable sector, attract new investment and reduce carbon emissions’.
Other aspects of the regulatory environment are also driving growth in wind power and other renewables. The Welsh Government has set binding targets for the nation as a whole but achieving them will be dependent on the aggregate effect of many parties playing their part, including business. Companies have therefore been set their own carbon neutrality targets and so there is growing demand from them for their own wind and solar power generators.
Demand for electricity generally will also increase massively as drivers make the switch from petrol and diesel power to electrified transport and heating. In Wales, wind energy will play a big part in meeting this. As well as onshore wind, there are offshore wind projects in the Irish Sea, and two tidal energy schemes proposed – one each off the north and south coasts of Wales. Taken all together, Wales’s drive to carbon-free energy generation is seeing it fast catching up with Scotland in terms of renewable energy generation per capita.
While the outlook for wind energy in Wales is very positive, there is one potential fly in the ointment in the shape of grid capacity. Many of Wales’s wind farms are located on remote hillsides. These are great for capturing wind energy, but getting the electricity generated from there to where the demand lies is a perennial bugbear. The Welsh Government hosted a ‘Wales Climate Week’ in November, during which Renewable UK Cymru warned that significant challenges faced green energy developments in linking up to existing power lines. Responsibility for development of the grid is still shared with Westminster, while Ofgem also plays a part through setting annual amounts that firms can spend on upgrading their networks.
Grid capacity therefore needs to be addressed in tandem with increased energy generation. If this happens, there is no reason why Wales cannot fulfil the National Development Framework’s aim of becoming ‘a world leader in renewable energy technologies’.