Bringing back the power and the wealth to a Cornish town
It is hard to image that Wadebridge was once a centre of technological innovation. The view over the estuary town from the A39 flyover offers few clues to its industrialised past.
It's an idyllic scene more associated with nature, ice cream, tourism and the quiet turning of bicycle wheels than the grime and the tremendous din of forges and engines.
But Wadebridge was one of the first towns in the world to have a railway, opened in 1834 by Sir William Molesworth to carry sea sand, and was for a brief time the centre of internationally innovative engineering. In the mid-19th century north Cornwall was a hotbed of innovation: the local Harris foundry won international acclaim for its innovative pumps, pistons and wheels, and 17 gold medals at the World Fair in Paris.
Underpinning these phenomena were resilience and self-sufficiency in energy. Wadebridge once had its own gas and electricity works; a far cry from today's domination by the Big Six, the power companies which control the UK's centralised energy world. In a world of increased global competition and shrinking national budgets a persistent problem is how we stimulate those parts of the UK that are distant from the booming South East market.
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So an exhibition and discussion is running from today until Saturday, September 21, to ask that question, and listen to local people's answers. Wadebridge Energy Futures is a collaboration between WREN (Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network), the Wadebridge Museum, and the Wadebridge Chamber of Commerce. It asks whether it is possible to reach back into the past and learn the lessons of why for that period of history the Wadebridge economy was so exhilarating, but in recent years has become more of a commercial backwater, like so many of the UK's market towns? And it asks the big question: "May we be able to create a future as smart as was the past?"
In recent years Wadebridge has been undergoing a silent but potentially more ground-shifting community revolutionto combat ever-rising fuel bills, reduce the town's carbon footprint and seek new opportunities for the next generation.
Now approaching its third year, its 1,000 members are on the brink of what could be a momentous decision. The opportunity of beginning an upward cycle of economic prosperity is linked to the technological advances in the generation and management of renewable energy.
Crucially, this development brings with it the opportunity not only to save money by local power generation, but for the community to keep and invest the money that is currently paid to power companies.
Wadebridge spends nearly £13m annually on energy, more than twice the town's income from tourism. Much of this money leaves the town and goes to the power company owners based in Windsor (British Gas), Bilbao (Scottish Power), Paris (EDF), Essen (Npower), Dusseldorf (E.ON), and Perth (Scot & Southern Energy). Prices have doubled in the last five years, and if we stick with the current arrangements will carry on rising.
We can obviously use less energy, but can we also own more of the generation ourselves and keep prices down that way? And how does the community resolve the issue of hidden fuel poverty affecting 1 in 5 of the local population?
The possibility of a Smart Future is real. The balance between local and global has shifted, and modern technologies like smart grids, the internet and superfast broadband could help us redress that balance, and keep more skilled jobs in Wadebridge.
Superfast broadband is being rolled out across Wadebridge making it one of the best connected communities in the UK. We can now access global markets through becoming a centre of technological innovation.
To enable this transformation, Wadebridge is working with Cornwall Development Company and Cornwall Council to create a Smart Innovation Hub on the banks of the Camel to bring the sort of high value jobs that can be in short supply in North Cornwall.
And Western Power Distribution and a number of leading UK companies are working with WREN to establish a range of energy solutions including integrated generation, consumption systems, and a smart grid. They are also working together on solving one of the big problems in using renewable energy, which is the storage required to make sure that the energy is there when you need it.
Wadebridge people once created jobs out of their ingenuity. The Wadebridge Energy Futures exhibition is designed to ask local people the question: "Do they want to do this again?" If the answer is yes, then Cornwall should watch this space, as "If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything," says Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future.
Stephen Frankel, chair of the board of directors of WREN and Emeritus Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health Medicine.