Observations on a drive to to a Conference in Falmouth

I have just been lucky enough to attend the one-day conference on Integrated Renewables for Autonomous Power Supply http://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/events/details/index.php?event=2164  at the Penryn outstation of Exeter University. Many speakers from Britain, Norway and India gave impressive talks on PV, Biomass, Storage and Grid Integration along with some informative poster presentations by leading academics and up and coming research students. There was also a tour of the BREEAM excellent rated research facility. Not only did this fill me with excitement over the progress being made towards overcoming the storage and grid integration issues surrounding a truly low carbon energy industry but my journey along the A30 across Bodmin and down to Falmouth gave me a great opportunity to see some of the wind turbines and solar parks that are allowing Devon and Cornwall to so impressively out -perform Dorset in decarbonisation.

Now I know what you are thinking “If you’re so green what are you doing driving to Cornwall?” Well I could point out that I car shared with my partner and we stayed an extra night to make a mini break of it so it was far less environmentally damaging than an air flight to anywhere for a holiday but instead I will put my hand up and recognise that my ownership of a car is amongst the least green things I do. There are people who manage to do without a car by choice for environmental reasons and there are those, of course, who cannot afford to run a car but it is clear that personal transport is one of the most appreciated advantages of relative affluence and for good reason. I could not do many of the things I most enjoy in life without a car; I could not have commuted to my places of work from the pleasant places I have been lucky enough to live in without a car and I would not even have met my partner if I had not been able to travel long distances with large quantities of camping and living history equipment to re-enactment events using my car. Most adults in this country either own a car or would prioritise acquiring a car were their financial situation to improve. As far as the GHG emissions issue is concerned we are on the brink of a personal transport revolution with battery cars and hydrogen fuel cell cars ready to be used but just out of reach for most because of the lack of support infrastructure and high prices due to the lack of economy of scale in the manufacturing of the new vehicles.

As I was driving along the A30 seeing the regular appearance of wind turbines of many different designs I was of course struck by the fact that, although they were striking in their appearance, they did not ruin the views or do anything to diminish these counties as potential holiday destinations. There were several points at which I observed things that were something of an eyesore. The “Cornish Alps” of tin mining waste are a constant reminder of the long term damage done to environments by mining either for metals or for coal. There are a couple of places on the route where high voltage transmission cables and pylons criss-cross otherwise appealing valleys but we generally ignore these because we are now so used to them and very few of us would be prepared to do without reliable low cost electricity made possible by the National grid.

Finally I mustn’t forget the visual and noise impact of the very dual carriageway I was driving along. We have come to terms with the carving up of our countryside by dual carriageways and bypasses because we know that we can only enjoy the benefits of mass car ownership with a modern road network and, had we stuck with the road network of the 1950s we would be in a state of perpetual gridlock and economic collapse. I remember when the anti-road protestors focussed their efforts on the Newbury Bypass in the 1980s behind the charismatic figurehead of “Swampy”. I was very much in two minds about this as, at the time, I was doing student placement work at Harwell and travelling there each week from Leicestershire. Newbury was always gridlocked on a Monday morning and a Friday evening. The conditions for the people living next to the through road must have been extremely unpleasant and the traveller could spend an hour or more stuck in or around Newbury. Now, with the Newbury bypass and others on the A43 and A34 the run from the NE Midlands to the South Midlands is one of the easiest journeys you can take long distance in England and you get to see some lovely countryside which, although significantly affected by the roads, has not been totally ruined by them. There are certain houses and communities that I can see have suffered quite considerably especially when compared with the miniscule effects of distributed renewables like wind turbines or solar farms but on balance one can say that the price paid does not outweigh the benefits to the country of our modern road network. I see the situation with renewables as much the same as that of bypass politics in the 1970s and 80s. We all want cheap electricity and we don’t want our children and grandchildren to suffer short lives of suffering due to climate change initiated war, disease and economic collapse but some of us still don’t accept that this requires action now to change our economy and in so doing change our countryside even though the real downsides of that change are trivial in the extreme.

The other important aspect of this is the economic benefits to Cornwall of Renewables. The positive and proactive attitude of elected representatives and individuals in that county especially has meant that large sums of money that would have been flowing out of the county to the coffers of large energy firms is now going instead to farmers, land owners and ordinary home owners who are contributing to the green revolution. New employment opportunities are being created in academic institutions like the Penryn campus and in the support industries for renewable energy generation. Dorset is missing out on these things and again it is indicative of the selfish attitudes of those who are driving the anti-renewable agenda in our county. Many of them are much richer than the average in the county. They have built up big pension pots and share portfolios through their economically high intensity jobs in the SE of England and elsewhere causing all sorts of environmental issues there and around the world. Their invested capital continues to do so. For many who have lived all their lives in Dorset the only opportunities are low pay boring jobs in care homes or ever decreasing numbers of low grade public sector jobs. An opponent of renewables recently attended a meeting in Blandford who had moved to Dorset recently after a successful career in the SE of England. He stated that he couldn’t see the community benefit schemes relating to the proposed wind farms doing any good because the community he lived in already had a village hall and a post office so what was the point? I am sure that if you have a large income that comes to you without any need to travel to work or to work for that matter and your children are grown up and live in a completely different part of the country then you might struggle to see what a community benefit scheme should be spent on but if you are struggling to find a job or cannot find the child care facilities to enable you to work or have to rely in your old age on public transport because you don’t have a big fat pension then I am sure you might be able to think of some constructive ideas for the money.