Sea Power

Words by Oliver Berry

In a world getting ever hotter, Cornwall’s main attraction might also be its saviour.

It’s time to face facts: our planet is in a bad way. The icecaps and glaciers are melting, the rainforests are shrinking, the world is warming up, and it’s all thanks to our unswerving devotion to gas-guzzling SUVs, short-haul flights and those pointless little red lights on our televisions.

We’ve all heard the devastating predictions about the havoc global warming could wreak in the coming century – but most people haven’t really taken in the potentially devastating effects a warmer world would have right here on our doorstep. Warming seas would devastate local fish stocks and Cornwall’s precious marine environment, leading to a breakdown in food-chains and natural ecosystems. Drier winters and hotter summers would make farming, agriculture and coastal ecology much more difficult. And even a modest rise in sea levels would completely drown most of Cornwall’s seaside towns, displacing thousands of people from their homes and altering our coastal landscape forever.

But let’s be honest – despite the dire warnings, getting people to change their ways enough to make a real, lasting difference is going to be tough. What we really need is a clean, green and completely renewable source of energy, one that can power our homes and light our streets without burning any fossil fuels or smashing radioactive atoms into each other. And we need it soon. Now, in fact. Sounds unlikely, doesn’t it?

The funny thing is, this magic energy resource already exists. Cornwall is surrounded on three sides by a vast, inexhaustible and as yet untapped power plant which, according to the South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA), could generate up to one sixth of the UK’s electricity consumption by 2020.

Wave power is fast becoming one of the most exciting prospects in the global race for renewable energy. The world’s first offshore tidal energy turbine was built in Devon last year, but even more exciting is the Wave Hub, a groundbreaking research project that scientists and engineers hope to launch off Cornwall’s coast by the end of 2006. The project aims to build an electrical grid connection point on the seabed to bring several different wave-power technologies together in order to research their merits, whilst also establishing one of the world’s first wave-generated energy plants – demonstrating the exciting possibilities of wave technology to potential investors around the globe.

One of the main advantages of the Wave Hub technology is that it circumvents some of the problems with other renewable sources, particularly aesthetic concerns and other negative environmental impacts. As the main Wave Hub is entirely situated below the sea’s surface, there are no worries about ruining any natural beauty spots, and the project could have knock-on benefits to fishing grounds and shipping routes, despite concerns, by providing a nursery and ‘no take zone’ for local fish stocks, and diverting heavy shipping away from the Cornish coastline. Furthermore, the SWRDA estimates that 450 new jobs and £15 million a year could be added to the region’s economy by 2010, rising to around 700 jobs and £27 million a year by 2020.

The government has committed itself to sourcing 10% of its energy needs from renewable resources by 2010, and The Wave Hub has already received support from energy minister, Mike O’Brien, as well as from environmental NGOs including Greenpeace, Friends Of The Earth and Surfers Against Sewage.

In July, surfers from SAS floated a giant green ‘X’ above the potential Wave Hub site to show their support for the project and to draw attention to the issue of renewable energy at the G8 summit. “Surfers are keen to see marine renewable technologies progress quickly so they can play their part in curbing climate change,” explained SAS campaigns director Richard Hardy. “The Wave Hub deserves full support but it needs a radical worldwide agreement on climate change to really make the difference the earth needs.”

But the future isn’t quite sealed for the Wave Hub – at least not yet. There are still several technological and engineering hurdles to overcome, and the major economic investment and political support needed to build the final Wave Hub itself (£12.42m in total) is yet to be secured. But while wave energy is still a new and emerging technology, with a bit of luck and some clear heads in charge, before too long we could be looking at our oceans in a whole new light. Here’s hoping.