Tag Archives: energy

Podcast: The UK National Grid: history of an energy landscape and its impacts

We take electricity for granted and do not think of where it comes from when we switch on a light or use an electrical appliance. But behind the electricity coming out of a wall socket lays an entire energy landscape of poles, wires, electrical substations and power stations. It is imposed on the landscape like a gigantic web, a grid that has become almost part of the natural scenery.

Just over a century ago this electricity grid did not exist. Power generation was local or at best regional and often based on the burning of coal or the use of locally produced gas. In less than a century the grid covered the entire United Kingdom and many other countries. It revolutionised our lives, the way we worked and it made air in cities a whole lot cleaner. But how did the development of this energy landscape impact on the landscape and environment? What were the social and economic consequences of the expansion of the grid?

This history is now researched by Cambridge based PhD candidate Kayt Button. Her project is part of the British Arts and Humanities Research Council funded environmental history initiative “The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts with Futures”, that focuses on environmental connectivities that have emerged in Britain since industrialisation. Episode 66 of the Exploring Environmental History podcast features Kayt’s work and discusses the development of the UK National Grid, and how it changed people’s lives, its environmental impacts and how the past informs the future development of the grid.

Web resources
Exeter Memories: Electricity Generation in Exeter
South Western Electricity Historical Society
UK National Grid at 75

Music credits
Dance of the Pixels” by Doxent Zsigmond, available from ccMixter
Snowdaze” by Jeris, available from ccMixter

 

Watch the video visualisation of the introduction of the podcast:

 

Exploring environmental History podcast

 

This podcast was simultaneously published on the Environmental History Resources website as part of the Exploring Environmental History podcast series.

What I learned at Hinkley Point – or why a nuclear power station is not like a bicycle

By Erin Gill

Hinkley B nuclear powerstation

Hinkley B nuclear power station (Photo: Erin Gill).

People often have firm opinions about the merits – or otherwise – of nuclear power. I’m no exception. When I set out early one morning in Sept 2014 for a tour of Hinkley Point B nuclear power station in Somerset with members of the Power & Water network I felt certain that my views wouldn’t be altered by what I would see and hear. I was wrong.

I was excited about the visit to Hinkley Point – this would my first visit to an operational nuclear power station and I wanted to see whether my general understanding of how reactors work was accurate. As we drove out of Bristol toward the site I thought about the two reasons why I have long opposed nuclear power (in a rather passive way). First, there is the inherent risk of catastrophic failure. Second, there is the unresolved issue of what to do with nuclear power stations’ ongoing production of radioactive waste, including highly-radioactive spent fuel rods.

There are several other arguments against nuclear energy – including the possibility that radioactive emissions could be a factor in the increasing number of childhood cancers – but for me the two make-or-break issues have been the twin dangers of nuclear disaster and waste. I don’t think energy production needs to be so risky.

So I was unnerved to realise, after a fantastic tour of Hinkley Point B led by informative and intelligent EDF staff, that I now have a new – a third – reason to oppose nuclear energy. I had not expected my opposition to nuclear power to harden, but it had. The EDF tour was exemplary, but it couldn’t help but expose a central problem: that it takes far, far too much effort, by too many people, who must all be very, very careful all of the time – and whose actions must be triple-checked by others – to produce what is really not very much electricity for the nation.

I am not interested in presenting a detailed case about nuclear power’s lack of economic competitiveness. Others have done this very well. Instead, I simply want to express my astonishment at what I witnessed: the staggering and inescapable inefficiencies of nuclear power generation. It is such a dangerous form of electricity generation that everything takes place at a snail’s pace and every tiny action is monitored so many times…I really don’t know how people work there without going mad with the tedium. Surely, humanity no longer needs to make so much of an effort – whilst putting the health of people and the environment at so much risk – in the pursuit of such a paltry amount of power. We have better solutions now, some of which need the financial support that we are misguidedly giving to nuclear power (I’m thinking here of the construction of high-voltage direct current – HVDC – interconnector cables between the countries that border the North and Baltic Seas, so that spare electricity can be traded rather than wasted.)

 

A 1960s mainframe

Relying on nuclear power today is like using one of those gargantuan 1950s computers that take up half a university campus but are only capable of spitting out useful data once every few months. And building new nuclear reactors is like choosing to do this at a time when it’s possible to use a 4G smartphone at a cost of about £20/ month.

Any new method of power generation should become easier and more efficient with time, not less efficient and more risky. As Hinkley Point B nears its 50th year of operation, it seems little more than a hulking symbol on the Somerset shoreline of a technology that has failed to improve with time; a technology that limps along requiring more and more assistance with each passing year.

Of course, the new reactors at Hinkley Point C will – if they’re finally built – be somewhat more efficient, for a few years. (Until their cores develop cracks prompting nuclear safety authorities to demand lower generation rates.) But even a brand new nuclear power station cannot offer even a fraction of the efficiency gains and cost savings being achieved by photovoltaics and wind. In the past decade the power generation game has inexorably changed and nuclear no longer makes any sense as a ‘transitional’, low-carbon technology. It’s been left in the dust.

Let me offer an example of the inefficiency that nuclear power necessitates. Each of Hinkley Point B’s two reactors is served by an enormous machine used to remove spent fuel rods and replace them with fresh rods. These bespoke machines take a full eight hours to very carefully – ever so slowly – remove one set of highly-radioactive spent (ie. used-up) fuel rods and replace them. This essential process ensures the reactors are ‘fed’ with the uranium and graphite-rich rods required for the generation of electricity. The reactors can’t run without the rods.

This eight-hour operation is risky, thanks to the highly radioactive nature of the spent fuel rods, and EDF’s staff are rightly proud of the care they take to ensure everything goes smoothly. After this painstaking procedure is completed, the rods are even more carefully transported to a cooling pond for temporary storage. Eventually, each of these spent fuel rods is tenderly transported by road and rail from Somerset to Cumbria, where they are stored in facilities that are acknowledged by all parties involved in the nuclear industry as seriously inadequate. One day the UK will build an underground storage facility – in granite – to house these spent fuel rods for thousands of years, but until this ‘deep geological storage facility’ is constructed we keep them in cooling ponds at Sellafield, where they pose a risk to local environmental and human health. This is not an opinion, this is a fact.

But I don’t want to focus on the the very real safety concerns about nuclear power. I want to draw attention to how inefficient and painstaking it all is. All the effort by so many people at Hinkley Point B and for what? For an average annual rate of electricity generation below 500MW per reactor. It’s enough to make a person weep. More than half a century of nuclear power generation in the UK and this is what we get?

I was relieved to learn during the Hinkley tour that safety is not taken lightly there. In fact, every three years, all operations cease for a three full months to allow for a comprehensive check of the station’s physical state and processes, known as a statutory outage. During this period approximately 9,000 people spend time onsite as part of these checks. That is a staggering number. In addition to the hundreds of staff employed during normal operations to cosset these two reactors so that they can each generate at a rate below 500MW, there are 9,000 extra people every three years just to make sure it’s still safe. This makes no sense. Almost every new regular-sized offshore wind farm being built off the UK coast will have a capacity approaching 500MW. The turbines need maintenance and repair, but they don’t need anywhere near the numbers of people that nuclear power stations need. Larger wind farms due to be built over the next decade will produce more than double the projected 3,200MW output of Hinkley Point C. As an example, Dogger Bank offshore wind farm, to be built in phases more than 100km off Yorkshire, will have a capacity greater than 7,000MW when complete.

 

A bicycle brain

I could go on, but I won’t. Opinions about nuclear power have become so polarised that I doubt anything I write will ever influence the views of someone who has already decided that nuclear power is a ‘good thing’. So I’ll end by admitting that I am a cyclist and that cycling has possibly influenced my views on industrial efficiency. I cycle to and from work most days and so I ‘know’ in a visceral, physical sense what real efficiency feels like. One of the oddest and loveliest things about the bicycle is that it is the most efficient form of human-designed transportation that exists to date. It’s true, look it up. The bicycle requires a surprisingly modest exertion of somatic energy in exchange for the production of enough power to travel at a speed of between 10-15mph.

No other machine invented by humans comes close to the efficiency of the bicycle – and those of us who cycle gradually realise this. If it looks like a breeze for us, that’s because it is a breeze (except when we’re going up hill)!

As I see it, nuclear power stations are the antithesis of the bicycle. They are the equivalent of a hulking military tank inching forward, built using vast quantities of finite resources, fuelled by even more irreplaceable materials, and manned by an enormous team of people who carefully keep the whole thing from blowing up. I am grateful to every single person who works at Hinkley Point B for keeping the reactors there functioning as well as they can. But I am truly mystified as to why the UK government is so committed to building yet another inherently inefficient (and, yes, dangerous) hulk on the Somerset coast. The energy generation equivalent of the nimble bicycle is available – in the form of a number of renewable technologies that are fast becoming commoditised and whose costs are tumbling. Even better, they generate electricity without the risk of poisoning the land and/or the people.

 

Jill Payne collaborates with artist Eloise Govier for Bristol Bright Night

On 26 September, project team member Jill Payne collaborated with the Bath-based contemporary fine artist Eloise Govier in the creation of a large-scale public art installation in the water spaces of Bristol’s Millennium Square. The installation, Ticker-Tape: Waterscape, formed part of the Bristol Bright Night event hosted by the At-Bristol Science Centre and was designed to challenge viewers’ perceptions of energy production in the landscape. Visitors were encouraged to walk around the artwork, a floating sculpture of 500 fluorescent bricks accompanied by a 5-minute visual soundscape broadcast on the BBC Big Screen overhead, and discuss their perspectives on art and energy landscapes with Eloise and Jill. Jill also provided an accompanying public lecture at the nearby Watershed.

Ticker-Tape: Waterscape is part of a series of Ticker-Tape installations created by Eloise Govier to spotlight and generate discussion on areas of contention in the public domain. Ticker-Tape was launched in April 2013 and has been executed in various sites across Europe, ranging from the Welsh/English border to a UNESCO-protected modernist housing estate in what was formerly East Berlin.

Bristol Bright Night is part of the annual ‘Researchers’ Night’ programme, an EU Commission-funded project that aims to engage publics across Europe in celebrating the latest and most stimulating research at a local and international level.

Art Installation

Ticker-Tape: Waterscape, Bristol’s Millennium Square (photo: Alex Dowson/Eloise Govier)

Hinkley Nuclear Power Station and the Steart Marshes: when do human-made landscapes become ‘natural’?

By Jill Payne

When (as is increasingly likely) the construction of Hinkley C nuclear power station goes ahead at Hinkley Point in Somerset, its two new reactors, the first civil nuclear construction in the UK in around two decades, will emerge beside the Bristol Channel alongside the two decommissioned reactors of Hinkley A station, and the two still operating at Hinkley B station.

The immediate ‘reality’ of the Hinkley site’s presence is, for many people, perhaps most entrenched in its looming figurative relevance; as a place of nuclear power production, the area has attracted headlines ever since the construction of Hinkley A began to be debated in the late 1950s. However, even without the Hinkley C units (which, from a distance, should appear as just less than the height of Hinkley B’s), the existing infrastructure makes for a substantial visual presence on the coastline.

Hinkley A Reactor

Reactor pastoral? The decommissioned Hinkley A nuclear power station framed by surrounding farmland (photo: Adrian Flint).

Up close, the power station buildings are intimidatingly brutalist. From a distance, they are visible on most reasonably clear days from across the Somerset Levels to the east and out on the Channel to the west as blocky silhouettes on the horizon. However, as with all infrastructure, Hinkley is simply one aspect of the wider human-made landscape in which it is situated, plus, it is not the only large-scale engineered addition to the area.

 

Steart Marshes

New natural? Across the flats from Hinkley A and B power stations (on the horizon to the left), the tide retreats from the freshly-constructed Steart Marshes (photo: Jill Payne).

There is another substantial human-engineered change taking place just along from Hinkley, in the shape of the Steart Marshes. To some extent, it’s quid pro quo: the original construction of Hinkley involved land reclamation and stabilisation on the sea-side of the site, and the existing precinct is encased in concrete and tarmac; the Steart Marshes plan has involved the reconstruction of a swathe of the nearby peninsula as an intertidal zone of saltmarsh and freshwater wetland. Old flood defences have been breached, and an artificial watercourse has been bulldozed out of former farmland. Now, at high tide, the waters of the Parrett Estuary spill out over what are currently raw mudflats. In future, the rewilded marshes, also a more general counterbalance to the embankments of much of the surrounding coastline, will act as a natural buffer against rising sea levels. It’s also possible to highlight the potential role of the marshes in protecting Hinkley’s power transmission network; the viability of the pylon transmission route from Hinkley was one of the features of the original case made for a nuclear power station here.

Half a century after Hinkley began operations, the Hinkley compound remains resolutely distinct from its surroundings. The Steart Marshes will, however, become visibly naturalised. The tides and the seasons will do their work, and the current construction scars will be eroded by time and new plantlife.

What is interesting here is how natural-looking but nonetheless ‘engineered’ landscapes tend, especially in the longer term, to go less remarked upon. They come to be viewed, particularly as firsthand memories of original construction works fade, as rather different entities to their more overtly artificial counterparts. Do we chew over degrees, aspects and meanings of natural-ness here? Or do we take this as another reminder of the power of visual impact in shaping our responses to human-induced environmental change?

 

Here’s looking at you, Wills Neck: The rare prospect from within Hinkley B

By Peter Coates

If you ascend the intimate, thickly wooded coombes that notch the northern slopes of the Quantock Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), you eventually enter an open moorland plateau which affords panoramic views that are one of the Quantocks’ best known features: nine counties, reputedly, are visible on a clear day. To the north, the view includes Hinkley Point nuclear power station, on the foreshore of the Bristol Channel. This particular prospect is dominated by the squat, twin reactor towers of Hinkley A (on which construction began in 1957, and which is currently undergoing decommissioning) and the more singular hulk of Hinkley B – the first Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor to contribute electricity to the National Grid (on which construction began in 1967). In A Portrait of Somerset (1969), local author Bryan Little hailed the original twin towers of Hinkley as ‘for all the world like the twin keep of some great Norman castle’ (p. 189).

Others regard Hinkley Point (where work preparing the ground for a third reactor, HInkley C, began in 2012) as a blemish on the local landscape. According to Natural England’s National Character Area Profile for the Quantock Hills (2013), the power station represents ‘an incongruous element of a scene otherwise ancient in character’ (p. 32), compromising the Quantocks’ viewshed, whose protection is no less important than looking after the attractions within the AONB.

Hinkley Point power station

View from the heights of the Quantocks towards the Hinkley Point power station (Photo credit: Peter Coates, September 2012)

There is also, of course – though it’s rarely considered – a view southward from Hinkley to the Quantocks. I was able to consider this view on 12 September, when I visited the plant as part of a group that included five members of the ‘Power and Water’ team, as well as various others from another AHRC project I’m involved in (‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’, http://www.hydrocitizenship.com/) (thanks, Jill, for organizing this trip). Probably the most unusual of these views is from a window in a corridor within Hinkley B. EDF’s tour guide encouraged us to gaze southward at the Quantock Hills through a window framed in a mock, gilt-edged picture frame. Though it was misty, the highest point on the Hills, Wills Neck (1,2612 feet; 384 metres) was readily detectable. Our guide even joked that we should have been walking around the lovely Quantocks instead of visiting a nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, as visitors’ electronic devices are prohibited at the Hinkley site, I was unable to capture this premium view. The view through an identical window immediately opposite on the northern side of the corridor is of the Bristol Channel, and in the far left-hand corner the plant’s cooling water intake facility can be glimpsed if you ram your hard hat hard up against the picture frame. This view reminded me of Celia, the Atlantic grey seal who was trapped in Hinkley B’s water intake chamber for five days in June 2011, though not unhappily, reported an EDF spokesperson: ‘Celia seemed in no hurry to leave as there were plenty of fish for her to eat’.[i]

Hinkley B Nuclear Power Station

Hinkley Point B viewed at low tide from the east at Stolford on Bridgwater Bay (photo: Peter Coates)

 

[i] ‘Seal rescued from Hinkley Point B power station water intake’, BBC News Somerset, 19 June 2011; ‘Grey seal rescued from nuclear power station’, The Guardian, 19 June 2011.

The UK National Grid: Environmental Impacts, Consequences and Connectivity

A poster presented at the 2nd World Congress of Environmental History, Guimarães, Portugal,  July 2014

 

By Kayt Button

The national Grid in the UK is essentially the transmission system for electricity in the UK. It was built between 1926 and 1933 to scale up the electricity supply of the United Kingdom from small local suppliers providing different frequency and voltage power for a few customers, to an integrated, unified system for all. In order to address the environmental impacts of the national grid both then and now, we need to address the extraction of the fuel, electricity generation, transmission and the usage by the consumer.

Initially 98% of the electricity generation was from the coal which had to be mined leaving scars on the landscape. Additional impacts were felt over the UK on landscape which accommodates the vast number of pylons and miles of overhead cables. Other effects were on the rivers, water from which was used to cool the power generating stations. This resulted in heating the water courses changing habitats for the flora and fauna within them. Air quality was also affected, dirt particles, carbon dioxide, sulphurous gasses, water vapours and heat all being pumped into the atmosphere. Over time as the grid has developed, new fuels have been used and the electricity industry has gone through nationalisation, privatisation and numerous parliamentary acts and regulatory bodies, and environmental issues have been addressed in different ways with varying levels of success.

Whilst the grid was designed to join everything together giving access to cheap electricity for everyone as the benefits of “economy of scale” were to be realised. The grid is so integrated and accepted that it has almost become invisible. Few people know what fuel is used to create their electricity, or where it comes from, so the environmental impacts of this seem abstract despite using electricity every day. The questions this raises are whether we are actually less connected to our energy supply despite the integrated infrastructure and how this affects our relationship to energy, infrastructure and environment.

 

One Eye on the Tyne -the Other on the Time!

By Leona Skelton

Having researched the development of drainage and sewage disposal systems (1500 to the present), for the last decade of my life, I felt enormously privileged to have been invited by Northumbrian Water to be shown around the facilities at their extensive Waste Water Treatment Works at Howdon, Newcastle on Tyne. The day I had been dreaming of (literally) since I can remember had arrived: Thursday 5th June 2014. By the time Team Power and the Water had assembled at our hotel’s reception for my stamp test, to confirm that everyone was wearing steel toe capped boots, I could hardly contain myself! Over the past few months, project members had dutifully visited various building trade stores around the country and, as I was relieved to see, they were all wearing appropriate – if amazingly diverse – footwear.

Disaster struck as we travelled to the site in the form of a big tunnel. Despite all of our combined academic degrees, we took the wrong turn down the ‘Tyne Tunnel Only’ road to South Tyneside! A snip at £3.20 return, per vehicle, and all very worthwhile for the team to see the Tyne Tunnel in all its glory first hand, but more to the point, it cost us fifteen precious minutes. My dream had been cut short and I was not happy. Speeding to the works as swiftly as we could, we discovered a fellow historian, who was joining us for the visit, looking very confused, stranded on a roundabout. Where is this place? Is it a national secret? Peter Coates duly rescued him and we arrived at reception to meet Andrew Moore, Northumbrian Water’s Director of Research, some twenty-five minutes late.

We were delighted to meet our tour guides, Tony and John, who gave us a fascinating presentation, explaining the history of the interceptor sewer, the catchment area which Howdon treatment works serves and an overview of the processes and systems carried out at the site. Hard hats and high visibility jackets were added to our steel toe capped boots and off we went, in two groups, to discover the wonders of Howdon.

Wqlk

Breaking in the Boots on the Site Tour. Photo: M. Dudley

First stop was the initial screening machines, which de-rag the waste and remove the grit washed down off the roads along with the rainwater, known as preliminary treatment. I looked through the windows at the complex arsenal of machinery designed to perform what many might be forgiven for assuming is a relatively simple function of physical separation. The waste from this process is sent directly to landfill while the residual waste is sent for primary treatment in large, covered settling tanks. The stress of being sucked down the Tyne Tunnel could not have been further from my mind. This is where the magic began…

The site was much larger than I had expected and I was mightily impressed by the complexity of the whole operation. It looks impressive above ground, let alone underground.

Underground waterworks

Team Power and the Water going Deeper Underground (not for the first time that morning!) Photo: M. Dudley

After the de-ragged waste has been allowed to settle, the sludge is removed from the liquid waste and, along with similar sludge brought by tankers from other treatment works, some of it is made into useful agricultural fertiliser while the rest is used to generate energy. The new anaerobic digestion technology, which came online in 2012, is really exciting. It allows Northumbrian Water to convert organic waste into biogas that can then be converted into electricity. Their AD (Anaerobic Digestion) technology is going a long way towards helping Northumbrian Water to achieve their goal of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions of 2008 by 35% by 2020. Walking up 23 feet of stairs to the top of one of the AD tanks rewarded us not only with a spectacle of the amazingly complex AD plant, but also with a very welcome bonus view of the Tyne, which lay immediately to the south, allowing project members to appreciate the scale of Tyneside’s mighty river.

Back to the liquid waste which, due to primary treatment, consequently possesses far less capacity to reduce dissolved oxygen in the river. The liquid undergoes secondary treatment in large, open, concrete tanks, where the bacteria feeds on the sewage in the presence of oxygen until the liquid’s demand for oxygen is minimal, thus rendering it significantly less harmful to the river. Minimal, remaining bacteria is then removed from the water using ultra violet light before the water is ready to be released into the River Tyne.

Radiant Blogger

The Radiant Blogger Underground at the Treatment Works. Photo: M. Dudley

We were given a fantastic insight into all stages of treatment and everyone was thrilled to have been given such an absorbing tour of Northumbrian Water’s essential work at a site whose vital function most people take for granted. We then had lunch and asked questions about the site, discussing potential areas of collaboration between our team and theirs. We all learnt a lot and what we saw gave us much to think about. Later, over dinner, Peter Coates sulked for a few minutes because he wasn’t allowed to feel the not so pungent ‘material’ that comes out of the plant between his fingers. But if that’s the only complaint, I think the trip can safely be termed a success.

Further developing of our relationship with project partner Northumbrian Water is integral to the aims of the Tyne element of the ‘Power and Water’ project and will also help advance the overall project’s wider aspirations in terms of impact and engagement. I’m delighted to have been invited to meet Northumbrian Water’s Customer Engagement Manager, Lucy Denham, on 26th June in Newcastle. I’m really looking forward to embracing the challenge of finding exciting and useful ways of deploying my research to inform, and hopefully to enhance, this increasingly important area of Northumbrian Water’s work.

is integral to the aims of the Tyne element of the ‘Power and Water’ project and will also help advance the overall project’s wider aspirations in terms of impact and engagement. I’m delighted to have been invited to meet Northumbrian Water’s Customer Engagement Manager, Lucy Denham, on 26th June in Newcastle. I’m really looking forward to embracing the challenge of finding exciting and useful ways of deploying my research to inform, and hopefully to enhance, this increasingly important area of Northumbrian Water’s work.

A visit to the South Western Electrical Historical Society

By Kayt Button

The changes brought about by the introduction of electricity over the past hundred and fifty years or so or have totally transformed our everyday lives. From the homes we live in, appliances we use, our systems of communication, and types and methods of working.

Housing of the South Western Electrical Historical Society

Housing of the South Western Electrical Historical Society in an electricity sub-station (Photo: Kayt Button)

After a series of scientific discoveries from the late 1700’s through the first part of the 1800’s supplying electricity commercially began as an entrepreneurial venture for the scientifically forward thinking. Investing in electricity generation through steam engines or other power sources and profit on their investments by charging local people for electric lighting, and later, supply of electrical power. In my quest to find out as much about the early history of electricity from the 1850’s onwards, I came across the South Western Electrical Historical Society. After some communication with Peter Lamb, the society secretary, I visited the museum.

Exposition space

Exposition space of the the South Western Electrical Historical Society (Photo: Kayt Button)

The museum is located in an unused part of an electricity substation, courtesy of Western Power Distribution. The museum contains an exhibition room, where artefacts are displayed, a meeting room, two archive rooms and an office. The exhibition room contains may artefacts described as “What your Grandparents Used”. The room is crammed full of all types of appliances and equipment and although I could have spent a good few hours just browsing and taking in the written information, I wanted to look at the archive material.

I had already read a great write up on the early days of power in the south west, by Peter Lamb and after seeing how much written material there was at the society, alongside the wealth of knowledge of the people there I was thrilled. There are already a large number of individual town histories researched and recorded for the South West of England, as well as the supporting documentation for them. Alongside this I discovered Garke’s Manuals of electricity which document everything that occurred in the electrical industry at the time. With adverts and sponsorship, it is a series of books I am looking forward to investigating further alongside the many other documents and maps available at the museum.

Finding a group of such knowledge people has been a real pleasure, and not just because of a very delicious lasagne pub lunch! I am looking to work further with everyone at the museum to use the South West of England as a case study looking at the changes to electrical power over the past century and a half. Their website address is www.swehs.co.uk to find out more about them.

From the Bristol Channel to the Outer Hebrides: The politics, economics, social consequences and environmental effects of harnessing the power of the seas in the 21st Century

A report from the 6th Bristol Tidal Forum and the 2nd Environmental Impacts of Marine Renewables (EIMR) Conference in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland.

By: Alexander Portch

The sun is shining, the grass is green, blossom adorns the cherry and the hawthorn, and the mornings are filled with a cacophony of birdsong: the conference season has clearly arrived. Whilst the much anticipated 2nd World Congress of Environmental History in Guimaraes, Portugal, is still several weeks away, the interdisciplinary nature of my research into tidal power in the Severn Estuary is such that it seemed appropriate to attend the 6th session of the Bristol Tidal Forum on 24 April at the University of Bristol, before packing my bags and embarking on a more extended expedition to the farthest reaches of the British Isles to join the 2nd Environmental Impact of Marine Renewables (EIMR) Conference in Stornoway.

sailing away from Ullapool

The soaring peaks of the Scottish Highlands near Ullapool fade into the distance as the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry MV Isle of Lewis departs for Stornoway (Photo: Alexander Portch).

Whilst my research mainly adopts an historical perspective to study the various ways in which people have harnessed the power of the tidal cycle in the past, it is also my intention to consider how that practice may continue into the future, particularly if a barrage is never constructed. With the UK still faced with the need to massively reduce its reliance on fossil fuels by the end of the decade, thereby meeting targets imposed by the EU, and the likelihood that without further investment in new facilities for electricity generation the population, even in developed areas, could suffer from energy shortages, interest in the potential offered by wave and tidal power remains high.

This is particularly so in some of the more remote parts of the British Isles, where strong tidal currents and energetic wave environments are commonplace, such as the Orkney Islands and the Outer Hebrides. In the latter’s case, the scattered villages and isolated crofts are subject to the highest levels of fuel poverty in the UK and, being so far removed from the coal-fired power stations and nuclear power plants that provide the greater part of the mainland’s power, are in a precarious position with regards to their present and future electricity supply. In more recent times, small arrays of wind turbines have been built across much of Lewis; but wind is widely known for its fickle and unreliable nature, even in one of the most windswept places in Europe. It is in response, therefore, to the increasing demand for alternative sources of renewable and reliable energy in places like the northern and western isles of Scotland, and their possession of an unparalleled wave and tidal resource, that an embryonic industry has sprung up in the region and is rapidly increasing in scale and sophistication. In the southwest, too, the combination of a high tidal range in the Severn estuary, powerful tidal currents around the north Devon coast and Cornish peninsula and the high energy waves rolling in from the Atlantic, in addition to the strong winds that drive them, has been recognised through the creation of the South West Marine Energy Park. This is an initiative which seeks to foster collaboration and engagement amongst a variety of companies and organisations, including consultancies, think-tanks and tidal turbine developers.

All such developments have implications for the future of the Severn estuary. Will a barrage be constructed after all? Or will the estuary be divided up into a series of tidal lagoons, as may already be taking place with the recent plans for a lagoon in Swansea Bay? Alternatively, will the estuary be left unmodified to facilitate the widespread exploitation of the waves, winds and tidal currents further out to sea in the Bristol Channel? These are all options to be considered, particularly as each has significant implications for both humans and the non-human environment. With these thoughts and questions in mind, I took my first tentative steps into this year’s conference season.

The Bristol Tidal Forum is a relatively small-scale affair. Taking place over the course of a single day, the event was composed of a linear sequence of talks given by key individuals involved in the south west’s burgeoning tidal energy industry. As quickly became clear, these were mostly people working in the development and financing aspects of the sector, including the directors of engineering firms responsible for designing and building the devices themselves, representatives of organisations tasked with providing the financial support necessary to make such technology economically viable, and policymakers whose remit it is to ensure that the industry continues to develop in line with relevant guidance and government priorities. The environmental aspects of the technology were thus rarely touched upon, whilst the barrage was evidently far from most people’s minds. In fact, one speaker even went as far as to express frustration with the obstacles that have arisen in response to the deployment by their company of turbines in Puget Sound, in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, resulting from the need to monitor the resident orca (killer whale) populations. In many respects, the tone was set from the very beginning by Andrew Garrad of DNV-GL. In his opening address he laid the blame for any delays and difficulties in developing the industry on a combination of political and economic factors, rather than environmental concerns. Perhaps there is some truth in this assertion, and it is something I will be testing through my own historical study of the Severn barrage.

In marked contrast to the Bristol Tidal Forum, the EIMR 2014 conference, as the title implies, was very much focussed on the real and predicted impacts that tidal and wave energy generation may exert on “the environment”. With delegates arriving from as far afield as Oregon, Washington state, France and Spain, and bringing with them expertise in disciplines as diverse as social science, underwater noise propagation, monitoring of marine mammals and diving seabirds, maritime archaeology – and, in my case, environmental history – the resulting presentations, posters and coffee-break discussions proved to be enjoyably eclectic and adopted an open-minded perception of “the environment” as encapsulating human and non-human elements, as well as sentient and inanimate agents. Of particular interest were talks on community engagement as part of the development of tidal power in Nova Scotia, an area now favoured for tidal stream turbines, but also recognised for possessing one of the few operational tidal barrages in the world; a monitoring project centred on salmon around the coasts of Scotland which employed a combination of contemporary and historical tagging data, including some dating back to the mid-19th century; an overview by representatives of Historic Scotland of recently published historic environment guidance for wave and tidal energy developers[i]; and a poster which sought to demonstrate that construction of barrages around the UK, including one in the Bristol Channel, would significantly alter the tidal range as far afield as the Bay of Fundy and the coast of Maine.

What was perhaps most apparent, however, was just how substantial the impact of these new wave and tidal energy devices is likely to be for the marine and coastal environments; for both people and the rest of nature. Despite their relatively modest size in comparison to more substantial structures such as tidal barrages and lagoons, they may still pose a threat to marine mammals such as seals, basking sharks and whales, and seabirds, in addition to modifying tidal range and tidal current velocity, whilst also affecting rates of sedimentation and wave propagation. They could also pose a hazard for shipping, influence the size and frequency of waves currently enjoyed by surfers and other water users (although a talk on this subject with regards to the north Cornish coast suggested that the modifications imposed by the new WaveHub testing site near St Ives are unlikely to be particularly noticeable), and function as an eyesore for tourists and local inhabitants of coastal areas. What is also clear, however, is just how much people care about such issues and how enthusiastic they are about finding ways through which to overcome any problems inherent in the technology in order to facilitate the successful deployment of what could prove to be one of the “cleanest” and most “sustainable” forms of electric energy generation.

Delegates EIMR 2014

Delegates at the EIMR 2014 Conference in Stornoway pose for the final end-of-conference. Reused with kind permission of the organisers of EIMR 2014.

The excitement that currently surrounds the wave and tidal energy industry was perhaps most clearly demonstrated towards the end of my travels in the Outer Hebrides during a journey around western Lewis organised as part of the conference. In addition to visits to the Callanish Stones (Calanais in gaelic) – the Stonehenge of the north, according to some – the Gearrannan Blackhouse Museum and the Dun Carloway (or Dùn Chàrlabhaigh) Broch (thus satisfying my passion for all things archaeological and ancient), the trip took in the proposed site for the Siadar wave energy testing facility located on the north-west coast of Lewis. Developed by Aquamarine Power and employing their Oyster wave energy machines, this is set to become the largest single array of wave energy devices in the world, providing approx. 40 MW of energy to communities on the island. Whilst the devices will be mostly submerged beneath the water, they will nonetheless become visible at the surface during operation. Concern also surrounded the potential risks they pose for marine mammals, the important seabird population of Lewis, the area’s archaeological and historic environment resource, and any vessels that may pass nearby. Additionally, the visual aesthetics of the region were in danger of being compromised by the large number of metal objects scattered across an extensive swathe of coastline.

Lewis coast

Looking south west along the windswept Atlantic-facing coast of Lewis towards the site of Aquamarine’s proposed Siader wave energy farm. The project was awarded full consent by the Scottish government in May 2013, but as can be seen here development has yet to begin. The photograph was also taken on a particularly calm and flat day but the Isle of Lewis is nonetheless renowned for its frequent high-energy waves (photo: Alexander Portch).

In contrast to many energy generation proposals, however, the Siadar site seems to be remarkable for overcoming all such potential obstacles. Seabird and mammal surveys have indicated that the area is largely devoid of any significant populations, and certainly isn’t used as a breeding ground or for feeding; archaeological remains are few and far between; shipping tends to be located further out at sea, away from such an exposed and rocky coast; whilst the decision to paint the devices in battleship grey with only a small amount of luminous yellow facing out to sea will keep their visual impact to a minimum. Local people are largely in support of the project, which will also make use of nearby insular harbour facilities and fabrication centres, and will benefit directly from the electricity produced at the site.

Beach at Dalmore

Breakers pound the beach at Dalmore, a short distance to the south west of the Siader wave site. This demonstrates that even on a calm day the waves on the west coast of Lewis can be sizable. Many a-surfer in the south west of England would no doubt be envious! (Photo: Alexander Portch)

Indeed, as I flew back to Bristol from Inverness at the end of what had been a most enlightening and enjoyable venture, and gazed down upon the miles of offshore wind turbines sprouting contentiously from the seabed off the Lancashire coast, I couldn’t help but wish that all energy developments could be so straightforward and acceptable. On the other hand, if that were so, my doctoral research would be much less interesting! In reality even the Siadar wave site is a long way from completion, and it will undoubtedly encounter further challenges along the way. But the lessons learned from that development could prove instrumental for subsequent projects elsewhere in Britain, and further afield; including, perhaps, the Bristol Channel and the Severn Estuary. Thus, as I delve deeper into the libraries and archives, I will be sure to keep at least one finger on the pulse of the wave and tidal power industries of the 21st century.

 

[i]Firth, A. Historic Environment Guidance for Wave and Tidal Energy. English Heritage,   2013.

 

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