Environmental History in the Making in Portugal and the Severn Sea

By Alexander Portch

Guimaraes

After a week of continuous conference sessions, some fresh air and open space was greatly needed. Thankfully, the UNESCO world heritage city of Guimaraes is situated amongst a truly spectacular landscape; one that could be easily enjoyed thanks to a cable car running direct from the urban centre to the summit of the nearby Montahna da Penha. Photo: Alexander Portch

And so the conference season continues. Whilst a new experience for me personally, the extensive programme of talks and panels circulated in advance of the 2nd World Congress of Environmental History at the University of Minho in Guimaraes, Portugal, which took place between the 8th and 12th of July, provided an insight into what to expect from the one of the year’s most prestigious gatherings of environmental historians, and the subsequent event didn’t disappoint. With presentations and discussions covering a multitude of subject areas, geographic locations and sub-disciplines – from marine cultural environments to the intersections between environmental histories and visual culture; encompassing the Americas, Australasia, India, Africa, and even the comparatively humble Tyne valley in northern England; and drawing upon the work of historians, geographers, zoologists and artists – WCEH 2014 demonstrated quite clearly just how far the practice of environmental history has advanced since the early days of the mid-late 20th century. Nonetheless, despite being daily immersed in a wealth of world-class scholarship disseminated by some remarkably knowledgeable, outgoing and enthusiastic individuals, I still could not help but be distracted by further developments back home in my own area of interest: the Severn Estuary.

Alongside the excitement of meeting and engaging with students, academics and scholars from around the world; listening attentively to discussions on topics as relevant to my interests as the remaking of North American rivers through the construction of hydroelectric dams and as fascinating as the emergence of Earth Art in the 1960s; sampling the many delights of Portugese café culture; and witnessing the tidal wave of destruction that was Germany’s assault on an unsuspecting Brazil in their 7-1 semi-final victory earlier in the week; the news that the Crown Estate have recently agreed seabed rights for a host of new wave and tidal energy demonstration zones, in addition to five new wave and tidal current sites, at various locations around the British coast, couldn’t fail to attract my attention. This includes three sites to be operated by Cornwall-based company WaveHub, encompassing wave testing zones in North Cornwall and South Pembrokeshire and a tidal stream array off the north coast of Devon near Lynmouth. The latter has been announced as the test site for Pulse Tidal’s Pulse-Stream system, which employs an alternative approach to harnessing the power of tidal stream currents to that employed by the majority of developers. Rather than creating the equivalent of an undersea wind turbine, as has been the case for MCT Siemens with their SeaGen design and Open Hydro with their Open Centre technology, the pulse-system exhibits a vertical up-and-down motion akin to the flaps on an aircraft which enables it to be deployed in relatively shallow water.

Equally distracting was the news that, despite the apparent finality of the UK government’s decision last year to reject proposals by Hafren Power for a tidal barrage along the Cardiff-Weston route (from Lavernock Point on the Welsh side of the Severn Estuary to Brean Down on the English side), the newly formed Severn Tidal Energy have recently succeeded in negotiating up to £200m of investment for a renewed attempt at securing support for an identical scheme. The investor, who is reported to be experienced in funding global infrastructure projects, has yet to be formally identified; however, it seems evident that STE are intent on pursuing a similar strategy to that of Hafren Power who made it clear that their project would be dependent on significant financial support from a private investor.

Cardiff-Weston Line

The “Cardiff-Weston Line” with Weston to the left and the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm marking the route to Lavernock Point on the Welsh coast near Cardiff. What will this view be like by the middle of the 21st Century? Very different if the newly-formed Severn Tidal Energy succeeds in its renewed attempt at securing permission for a Severn Estuary tidal barrage. Photo: Alexander Portch

As part of my work into the history of tidal energy and the exploitation and harnessing of the tides in the Severn Estuary and Inner Bristol Channel, it is my intention to employ the insights gained from my study of the past to enable the development of informed predictions and imaginings of future scenarios for such activity in the region. Could for example, the now derelict tide mill at Berkeley be resurrected as a small-scale hydro-electricity power station capable of servicing the local community? However, the activities of companies like WaveHub and organisations such as RegenSW serve as a reminder that such a future is already in the process of being envisioned. Perhaps, in place of older technologies such as tide mills or barrages, electricity will be generated through the widespread establishment of vast undersea tidal stream farms, supplemented in places by tidal lagoons such as that proposed for Swansea Bay. Alternatively, the recent establishment of Severn Tidal Energy and the renewed effort by its supporters to realise the potential for generating 5% of the UK’s electricity supply through construction of a single large-scale piece of infrastructure could still result in the designs from the past being made manifest in the future. Only time will tell, but whatever comes to pass, regardless of where I am in the world, at which conference I am presenting or which major sporting event is taking place, I will be sure to remain abreast of developments in the Severn Sea.

 

Sources/Relevant Website Links (all accessed on 14/07/14):

http://pulsetidal.com/pulse-tidal-plans-commercial-demonstration-at-lynmouth.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-28204423

http://www.openhydro.com/technology.html

http://www.pulsetidal.com/our-technology.html

http://www.tidallagoonswanseabay.com/

http://www.walesonline.co.uk/business/business-news/company-behind-tidal-barrage-project-7373290

http://www.wavehub.co.uk/news/crown-estate-unlocks-further-uk-wave-and-tidal-current-opportunities/#more-1185

One comment

  • Peter Coates

    Thanks for reminding us, Alex, of what was arguably the most spectacular extra-curricular attraction during the conference: the Teleferico de Guimaraes. I was so smitten that I rode it twice, enjoying in particular the bird’s eye view of various swimming pools. In contrast to the downhill course of water in a stream, and the ebb and flow of the tide, with its alternations between relative inactivity and more rapid movements, the cars on the funicular move at a constant speed and in a perpetual cycle (well, at least they do from eight to five). Thinking a bit harder, though, about the motion and process of this particularly striking example of Portugal’s distinctive vertical transportation system, there does seem to be an eye-catching parallel in the hydro-social (socio-natural?) world of power and water: the hydrological cycle of evaporation condensation and precipitation that courses between sea and earth, lifting moisture from the ocean and depositing it in rivers that run back to the sea. A shame that my second ride meant that I missed the 9am session on ‘River, region, watershed: scales in the environmental history of water systems’.

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