Cardiff waterfront

Can renewable energy turn Wales as clean and shiny as the Cardiff waterfront? Courtesy ttfnrob via Flickr

The sparkling, sanitized waterfront of Cardiff, Wales, reveals barely a hint of the country’s grimy industrial past. Where one of the busiest ports anywhere once shipped Welsh coal out into the world, a complex of upscale shops, pubs, and restaurants now dominates the area. Out are the sailors, brothels, and seedy watering holes. In are tourist-friendly pubs, fusion restaurants with names like ffresh, and a circus carousel. The locally favored Brains brewery (“People who know beer have Brains”) has survived nearby.

Even the bay itself has been remade. The natural tidal mudflats along the shore were too unseemly and smelly, developers figured, to attract new money. So authorities built a 0.7-mile dam to create a permanent artificial lake, tidal ecosystem be damned.

The only clear reminder of the country’s industrial heyday is the Pierhead Building, a red gothic-revival landmark that once headquartered a powerful shipping company. The first million-pound check was signed nearby and stored in the Pierhead a hundred years ago, according to national lore. After decades of going largely unused, the building was reopened this month as a museum, gallery, and civic forum.

The decline and tentative rebirth of the Pierhead is a telling stand-in for the story of Wales itself. A country of 2.9 million people, part of the United Kingdom, Wales was one of the first places to rise in the industrial revolution. Then it was one of the first to see its fossil fuel–based economy bottom out. Over the last decade, its government has invested heavily in clean-energy technologies, trying to cultivate a job base built on innovation rather than on mining and burning its natural resources.

I spent four days visiting Welsh companies and research hubs this month, on a trip funded by International Business Wales, a business-promotion arm of the government. The agency gave a biased perspective, of course, but one that revealed a lot about what Welsh leaders would like to achieve.

But I didn’t go because I was interested in Wales, no disrespect. I went to learn about the future of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, and other coal-dependent parts of the United States. Because those regions are following the same coal-driven trajectory as Wales. They just haven’t hit the rough patch yet.

You can look at Wales as the Appalachia of the U.K.—rural, hilly, beautiful, and, for much of the past two centuries, economically dependent on digging up and selling a fossil fuel. The key difference is that Wales built up its mining industry sooner, and saw it collapse sooner. But laws of economics promise the real Appalachia is following the same path.

Here’s why: Coal is a finite resource. It’s running out. Not only that, it’s also getting harder and harder to reach. The Hubbert Peak model shows how this happens—here’s Grist’s David Roberts explaining:

The easiest reserves are found first. Over time, as more accessible seams are mined out, what remains is increasingly difficult to obtain and expensive to transport. In every coal field, every country, every region, the energy-return-on-investment (EROI) rises, peaks, and declines. Post-peak, it takes more and more energy to reach the coal and get it where it needs to go. The crucial issue is not how much coal is left in the ground but where we are on the curve, and more to the point, when we cross into negative EROI, the crucial line after which it takes more work to get coal out of the ground than coal returns in energy.

This graphic from the Energy Watch Group shows how Europe’s coal production (in lime green) peaked late last century, then shrunk to barely a sliver. North American production (in peach) is expected to level out over the next 30 years, then start its decline. Same trend, just a few decades later.

Worldwide coal production graph

Peak and crash

To see how this plays out, it’s worth looking at the recent history of Wales. For much of the past two centuries, its coal-rich southern valleys formed the country’s economic backbone. English finance and technology helped build the mining industry, which in turn drove the shipping trade in Cardiff. Iron and steelmaking, which relied on abundant coal, were the next industries to rise.

But most Welsh coal is deep underground, often requiring miners to travel a thousand feet down to retrieve it. As Australia and nations in Asia and Eastern Europe began extracting coal that was closer to the surface and easier to collect, Welsh mines struggled to compete. The mountaintop-removal method dominant in Appalachia is even cheaper—blast open the mountain and there’s much less digging to do.

The decisive blow to the coal economy came from the miners’ strike that consumed Great Britain in the mid-1980s. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government prevailed (despite the efforts of Billy Elliott), crushing organized labor all over Britain. Thatcher’s victory brought an unintended environmental boon by sharply reducing the mining of coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

E.U. convergence zones

E.U. aid zones (in dark red), 2007-2013 Courtesy

Welsh mining continues in isolated pockets, including a two-year-old open-pit mine that is located an astounding 36 meters from private homes. But it has mostly vanished, leaving the country in rough economic shape. Its GDP per capita ranks last among regions in the U.K. Unemployment in some former mining valleys reached 25 percent. Many parts of the country are poor enough to qualify for European Union development aid, which goes mostly goes to former Soviet bloc countries.

“We’re treated as the Third World of the U.K.,” one resident complained to me.

So it’s not hard to see why leaders want to emphasize new industries. And it’s not hard to see why they prefer knowledge jobs to extraction jobs.

But wanting to become a cleantech hotspot isn’t unique. Any number of places—New England, the San Francisco Bay Area, Denmark, Shanghai—have the same goal. What matters is follow-through. And the Welsh follow-through is impressively wide-reaching.

There is wind—25 farms generate 300 megawatts of energy, making use of open ridgelines and the coasts that border Wales on three sides. There is solar—several companies build panels, including Pure Wafer, which makes panels out of recycled silicon. Early-stage, experimental wave and tidal energy projects are planned for sites along the coast. A biomass plant produces electricity from waste wood (sawmill scraps, pallets, forest brush), and another set to open in 2011 would be the world’s largest.

The country has also drawn on the expertise in its universities, forming a multi-school Low Carbon Research Institute and a series of business incubators to find ways to shuttle innovations from academic labs into the marketplace.

Combined, it all adds up to … a promising start. The transition from dirty to clean energy hasn’t been easy, and 25 years after the collapse of the Welsh coal industry, its clean-energy sector looks more like a field of green shoots than a mature ecosystem.