Grid poverty; is mid-Wales vulnerable?
I recently attended the official launch of the Pen y Cymoedd windfarm. As the largest onshore windfarm in Wales, it’s a project of great significance in our move to a low-carbon economy, as well as an elegant and beautiful monument to Wales’ slow change from a fossil-fuel pioneering nation, to a renewable energy powerhouse.
Being part of the excited throng brought back memories of a blog post I wrote way back in 2013 which contrasted the potential — now real — benefits of wind due to Pen y Cymoedd, with the hostile approach to onshore wind demonstrated by councillors and other elected representatives in Powys.
The local area around the Pen y Cymoedd windfarm has seen a boost to tourism, a huge lift to the local supply chain, a big investment into local habitat improvement and a £2 million annual community benefit fund.
Powys, which had hundreds of Megawatts of onshore wind rejected by the UK Government in 2015, could have benefited to a scale around three times greater, bringing strategic-level ‘clean’ money to the region, and supporting a wide range of associated business development — as well as bringing grid infrastructure to a region which is highly limited in opportunity as a result of grid restrictions.
Mid Wales’ grid is close to capacity. This means that there can be little more renewable energy installed, and also that any large electricity demand will be problematic.
This has several implications, none of which look good for the county.
Firstly, any significant take-up of heat pumps, which are particularly beneficial for off-gas-grid properties , a large number of which lie within Powys, could cause problems for current grid capacity. This means that the capacity of technology to reduce fuel poverty in mid Wales will be limited — in contrast with other parts of the country.
Secondly, the coming revolution in electric vehicles could pass Powys by if there is insufficient grid capacity. On the face of it this is only a minor disadvantage initially — electric vehicles are currently more expensive to buy than fossil fuelled vehicles.
However costs are declining, and it is highly likely that whole-life costs of electric vehicles will be be considerably below that of fossil fuelled vehicles within a few years.
Electric vehicles offer much lower maintenance costs, much lower running costs, and lower externalities (noise, air pollution etc).
They also offer far greater flexibility of charging — as long as you have access to a charging point.
As electric vehicle ownership starts to penetrate mid Wales, the viability of rural petrol stations will start to become jeopardised. Already running on low margins, a few thousand fewer transactions — not just the fuel, but the shopping which often accompanies the visits — may be sufficient to persuade some owners to close up shop.
This will increase the cost of transport for people who are not able to use electric vehicles, as it will inevitably increase the average distance they need to travel to fuel their vehicles.
The lack of sufficient grid infrastructure to enable the whole region to adopt electric vehicles means that there may be a point at which tens of thousands of householders and businesses are left with ‘stranded assets’ of fossil fuel vehicles which saddle them with higher ongoing costs than other regions of Wales.
At a time of great uncertainty for the rural economy (#Brexit), any additional cost burdens are extremely unhelpful. Grid poverty has the potential to negatively impact the economic livelihood of the rural sector, particularly compared with urban dwellers.
Although this article focuses just on heat pumps and electric vehicles, insufficient grid capacity can be a disadvantage for a wide range of activities. It can stifle renewable energy deployment, restrict the creation of new business and act as a barrier to investment to name just a few.
The wind energy projects rejected by the UK Government could have enabled this infrastructure, and brought a whole host of additional benefits. Whilst the door is not completely closed on some of this still becoming a reality, it’s undeniable that the outlook for mid Wales is more uncertain and less secure than it could otherwise have been.