A little known – but costly – fact about your electricity bill is that around 20 percent of what you pay is determined by where you live. This is because energy companies charge customers according to the distance between their home and the power station; this allows the cost of maintaining Grid infrastructure to be factored into the final price of electricity.
With this in mind, while living near to a big power station may not be that great for environmental reasons, it could be saving you a couple of hundred pounds a year. Take the giant, 1,500 MW coal-fired Aberthaw power station in the Vale of Glamorgan. That one power station provides enough electricity to power the whole of South Wales. At least, it will for another year. After that, Aberthaw will be mothballed, and only restarted in the event of electricity shortages across the National Grid.
A third of the energy lost to Wales with the closure of Aberthaw could have been made up by one of Amber Rudd’s proposed new gas power stations at South Hook in Pembrokeshire. But yesterday, the consortium behind that project decided to pull out.
In effect, those two decisions could add £100 to every household electricity bill in Wales, as we are obliged to turn to electricity generated in England and beyond. More importantly from a political point of view, the result is bound to be more expensive energy costs to industry and business. The owners of Tata Steel cited high energy costs as one of the factors behind their decision to sell their Port Talbot plant. Even before that announcement, the owners of Celsa Steel – whose plant adjacent to Cardiff Bay uses more than 40 percent of the city’s electricity – said that future investment was conditional on sufficient local energy generation. Many of Wales’ less prominent businesses will also struggle to remain profitable in the face of increasing energy costs; the risk is that potential investors will go elsewhere and Welsh businesses may decide to relocate.
Because of the economic impact of these changes to Wales’ energy infrastructure, this should be a priority for candidates seeking election to the Welsh Government – it will certainly be a cause of problems for those of them who are elected.
Clearly neither Aberthaw nor South Hook can be saved – closures are commercial decisions made by energy experts who understand all too well that coal and gas are going to be unsustainable in the 2020s.
So what are the alternatives? The obvious large-scale ones are the two South Wales tidal lagoons – the smaller, Swansea lagoon will generate 300 MW, while at 1,500 MW the Cardiff-Newport lagoon will replace Aberthaw’s output. In addition, offshore wind farms similar to the Gwynt-y-Mor development off the coast of North Wales can generate around 500 MW.
These are not enough, of course. We need additional storage capacity – such as the hydro storage at Dinorwig. We also need far more micro-electricity generation at both the household/business and community levels. Hydroelectric schemes in Monmouth and Radyr demonstrate the sort of thing that can be done at a community level. Insulating homes, switching from gas to electric heating and water systems, and deploying small scale solar and wind generation can dramatically lower bills for Welsh households and businesses – we can only guess at the savings we could make on our public services (and annual council tax bills) if every public building in Wales deployed solar panels, wind turbines and heat-exchange pumps as an alternative to our current dependence on imported gas and electricity.
The immediate barrier to this is that the Welsh Government does not have authority over large (500 MW plus) energy developments. We need politicians of all parties to come together to demand that Wales be given full control of our energy future.
On the positive side, we do not need to spend the usual decade or more that politicians and civil servants usually take to draw up a plan – we already have one. It is a plan that doesn’t just make Wales energy independent, it also creates jobs, spawns new industries, and helps develop Wales into a post-carbon energy leader on the world stage. Again, what we need from politicians of all parties is that they throw their full weight into turning the plan into reality as quickly as possible.