HomeLow carbon futureGoing backwards on coal is a mistake when Cumbria has so much green potential to propel it forwards

Going backwards on coal is a mistake when Cumbria has so much green potential to propel it forwards

This post is by Ciara Shannon, director of the Green Finance Community Hub. Based in Cumbria.

As anger continues to reverberate against the recent approval for Woodhouse Colliery, in many ways the decision was not a surprise as mining is ingrained into the soul of the area and locals in West Cumbria have long supported the project for the additional jobs it will bring. This was a major reason why 12 Cumbrian councillors (cross party and across Cumbria) approved the mine for a third time back in 2020.

In the past ten years, Copeland has repeatedly missed out on investment opportunities, such as the recent £222 million Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) nuclear fusion power plant, where Moorside, near Sellafield, was shortlisted but missed out to Nottinghamshire. While there have been smaller infrastructure investments, overall, the vision of beautiful rolling hills that Cumbria is so famous for belies the underlying economic realities of the region. Unfortunately, over the longer term, a new coalmine will only add to this by locking the region into a high carbon future at a time when investing in the green transition is imperative.

Last year, Prof Nick Robins and I outlined a green recovery plan for Cumbria based on four key pillars. Here is an update on this:

1. Capitalise on Cumbria’s green economy potential
Cumbria’s natural capital and renewable energy offers considerable investment opportunities. While there are already examples of innovative management of natural capital in Cumbria, including catchment management, peatland restoration, woodland creation and agricultural innovations, there needs to be more focus on how to catalyse private sector funding, in partnership with local organisations, to generate investments that will significantly scale up these approaches in Cumbria.

The county should continue to build on its status as a net energy exporter to the national grid. It is estimated that it accounted for 4.3 per cent of all installed UK energy capacity in 2020 and 5.6 per cent of all UK electricity generation. When compared with the other renewable sources in Cumbria, offshore wind contributes the greatest capacity but the full potential of more offshore wind and floating offshore wind in the Irish Sea has not yet been fully assessed. And there is much more scope for onshore wind and hydro too. For example, Cumbria currently has 239 onshore installations generating 464GWh of clean energy and the Rural Community Energy Fund, a £10 million government scheme, is supporting local hydro schemes, including high head hydro schemes at Buttermere and the Duddon Valley.

Cumbria’s offshore wind industry is an opportunity to accelerate green hydrogen production. In Barrow, there is a new private-public sector partnership to create a £40 million hydrogen hub to produce 3,500 tonnes of hydrogen initially every year. While still in the early concept stage, there is potential for a multi-pronged green hydrogen strategy for Carlisle, Workington and Whitehaven. These plans could integrate with the North West’s wider low carbon industrial cluster by 2030 and other ‘anchor’ investment projects.  England’s first community-focused offshore wind farm, known as Collette, is being developed and will use hydrogen to transfer energy to shore. It will involve a consortium of partners focused on green growth and community transformation, supplying renewable energy across Cumbria.

2. Economic renewal through local net zero plans
Cumbria’s 2022 Clean Energy Strategy is underpinned by three strategic touchstones: net zero, productivity and inclusive growth. It aligns, to an extent, with other local transport and skills strategies. Reorganisation into two new unitary authorities from 1 April next year will take time to bed down, but it’s hoped that common net zero ambitions and plans can be a bridge between these, building on what has already been achieved, and lead to faster delivery of Cumbria’s 2037 net zero target.

3. Community participation
In 2021, Copeland Council and other organisations supported a Copeland People’s Panel on Climate Change. This suggested that the area should become a centre for excellence for green jobs, skills and training for young people and adults. It also suggested a sustainable energy training hub and significant investment in renewable energy by Copeland, including community ownership of energy generation wherever possible, investments in local skills development and a community benefit fund. It is encouraging that more of these people’s panels are planned for 2023.

4. Investment to make it happen
Considering Cumbria’s importance in the UK’s energy, industrial and agricultural sectors, stimulating private investment locally, alongside government support, is essential for it to play its part in meeting the country’s net zero goal. The national finance market needs to be more strategic at a local level; at present, most green finance capacity is heavily based in the UK’s distant financial centres. This makes attracting green finance locally much harder. More skilled green financial professionals who understand the region are urgently needed to change this picture.

Instead of reviving industries of the past, we think a place based, whole system approach is needed to catapult Cumbria’s net zero strategy into a pipeline of specific green projects and business ideas leading to longer term economic growth for the county. But, for people who live and work in Cumbria to see these benefits soon, investable projects, from concept through to feasibility stages, should be accelerated by connecting them now with the sources of loans and equity finance they need to get going.

Image: Walney Offshore Windfarm © David Dixon

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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