Lisa Childs, Senior Account Director at Copper reflects on the Future Energy Wales 2023 conference, held earlier this month at the ICC Newport.
Net zero presents a once-in-a-generation industrial opportunity for Wales, and it cannot afford to let it pass by
Future Energy Wales 2023 landed at a pivotal time, with Wales on the cusp of an energy revolution with transformational potential. Key questions remain: are governments, industry and communities ready for the challenge? Is Wales set up to seize the opportunity presented by net zero and by major investment?
Wales’ industrial past means that we are a nation scarred by the negative experiences and stereotypes of major investors extracting wealth, rather than it staying in and being re-invested in Wales.
Even more recent experiences show how Wales was too slow and too disjointed to take advantage of major supply chain opportunities presented by major flagship UK-wide projects.
Could the flurry of energy projects in the pipeline in Wales also present an opportunity for increased national self-confidence when it comes to not just delivering major projects, but successfully leveraging opportunities to deliver lasting benefits for communities, businesses, localised supply chains, and the landscape?
Wales: a collaboration nation?
Collaboration was the unofficial theme of Future Energy Wales 2023, becoming a buzzword for all the sessions over the conference.
Future Energy Wales 2023 called for collaboration between sectors, developers, governments (of all layers) and communities in order to act at pace to respond to the challenge posed by the climate emergency and Welsh Government net zero targets.
Perhaps speakers and delegates were feeling collaborative with a welcome reminder of just how important and powerful it is to have everyone under one roof, after we were starved of such affairs during the Covid years.
Or perhaps the culture of doing business in Wales is different? We’re a chatty bunch, with a Welsh Labour Government that places high value on social partnership, so perhaps collaboration just comes easy to us?
Collaboration, partnership and coordinated planning between governments, developers, communities and education providers will be the key to success, and to give Wales a competitive advantage in the global race to become world-leading in renewables.
We were also reminded that bringing the public and stakeholders with us is key. We need buy-in from society to create the smoothest path possible towards net zero and to maximise the benefits of transformative projects and developments.
As we’ve been reminded recently at a UK, Welsh and local level, failure to engage communities, communicate change, and bring people with us by reminding them of the end goal or the jeopardy has led to protests, social media furore and the formation of organised local opposition groups.
Good stakeholder engagement and communications is hard to get right, and needs genuine bespoke strategy and thought. It is what motivates us at Copper.
In addition to messaging, communications and engagement, community benefits are a valuable vehicle for initial local engagement, and a hook for a continued conversation.
We learned that community benefit packages need to be bespoke, co-designed and targeted – with Minister for Climate Change, Julie James MS, even advocating for residents to push for retrofitting homes as part of benefits negotiations!
Benefits need to reach those who need it most, not just those who shout the loudest. Vocal opponents usually have the most means to voice those views, so we need to not just focus on the loudest and ensure benefits reach those who may not have spare resource to engage or voice opposition.
Project teams and good communications teams need to support those without a voice to play a role in shaping projects and their benefits. A topic Mymuna Soleman of the Privilege Café speaks so beautifully about in her “I am not hard to reach” series.
Grid, grid, and more grid
Grid connectivity was the elephant in the room, which in many ways is symbolic of where we’re at as a nation on the issue.
If we are to decarbonise, if we are to reach our net zero targets, and if we are to achieve 100% of Wales’ annual electricity consumption from renewable energy by 2035, then we do not currently have the grid connectivity to do so.
It is widely recognised that the lack of grid infrastructure is holding back the green economy, indeed the Minister, Julie James, highlighted it as the number one issue for her team.
Investment in the grid is the missing piece in the jigsaw in unlocking the net zero economy in Wales. But no politician of any party dares to utter the words out loud of what this actually means: pylons.
On major issues such as these, we often see cross-party cohesion in the understanding that some issues which are not politically popular, but in the long term interest of future generations, sometimes political point-scoring can be put to one side; but I don’t see that happening anytime soon on this particular issue in Wales… although I’d love to be proven wrong.
Bottlenecks as barriers
We have a positive renewables story to tell in Wales, but as I’ve always said (in other sectors) being slightly better than England shouldn’t be the end goal.
Constraints mean that the consenting process is typically delayed, adding critical time to project lifespans.
Wales is not on track to meet its 2035 commitments, unless industry and government supercharge their masterplanning, consulting, submission, consenting, procuring & delivery processes.
Renewable UK’s Plug The Gap report, which coincided with the event, questioned whether Wales’ DNS system is robust enough and up to the challenge presented by the climate emergency.
There have been 22 applications under the regime in the past 7 years, with a 41% refusal rate. Of the 9 projects refused, 44% were refused by the Minister against the Inspector recommendation – they were all energy generating projects.
At Copper we have a growing team in Wales of highly skilled and experienced professionals dotted all around the country. We can support with strategic communications, public affairs, community relations and branding & design from project inception to delivery.
We have over 15 years’ experience in delivering for clients in Wales, and are currently supporting clients with exciting projects in wind, solar, grid, carbon capture and storage and re-industrialisation.
If you are interested in Copper’s work, please get in touch with Lisa.Childs@copperconsultancy.com to find out more.
Let’s chat // Coffi a chlonc cyn bo hir?