Parallel Blogs

I’ve started writing another blog, for the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN). You can find it here, and I’ve put in a permanent link on the right hand side of the home page – A WREN Blog.

This does not mean any lessening of the trivia usually displayed here; it’s something extra.

The latest entry over there is about a demo that Diana and I went on the weekend before last. It’s called PIMBY Protest, and if you want to know what a PIMBY is, click across and have a look.

Wadebridge Energy Futures

On Friday, around 4:30 pm, I walked down to the town hall, where the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN) had an exhibition called “Wadebridge Energy Futures”. Friday was also the day of the WREN annual general meeting, so I figured that I could walk down just once, see the exhibition, and then hang around and maybe help out for the forty-five minutes before the AGM, rather than walk up and back again.

The exhibition traced the sources of energy and power used in Wadebridge from the start of the industrial revolution (water wheels) through coal-fired steam engines (1834) and its own coal gas works (1850) to its own diesel-fired electricity generation plant (1926), ending with the national grids for distributing electricity and gas and the closure of the railway.

And then it went on, because the exhibition was about energy futures and the aim of making Wadebridge self-sufficient in energy – not for the first time, but once again – and cutting reliance on the national grids and the Russian and Qatari gas and nuclear fission and coal and, who knows, our own fracking gas. (Who else out there watched Battlestar Galactica and can’t hear serious newsreaders talk of ‘fracking’ without a faint smile?)

And this time, Wadebridge won’t use coal and oil as the source of power, but rather wind and solar and geothermal… The clue is in the name: Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network. There’s no sense in being too subtle about this.

My offer of help was well received as we transformed the exhibition from being a horseshoe shape in the middle of the hall to two lines down the sides, with 140 chairs in the middle for the AGM and the open meeting to follow it. It helped that David whom I knew from the bowling club was there, a WREN director no less.

WREN is actually a limited company, so the AGM followed a prescribed and familiar form, with rather more free-form questions and discussion than limited companies normally allow. The Shell AGM, for example, tries hard to stick to the formalities, fending off the various protestors brandishing their one share, trying to promote their own agendas. It was interesting to see that the directors sat in the body of the hall, facing the members, rather than on the stage (which was set out with chairs for the later meeting). The chairman, Stephen, emphasised that the directors were there to do what the members wanted, a touch of humility that the banking sector, for example, would do well to emulate. But then, WREN exists to promote renewable energy, not to make a profit for its members and certainly not to enrich its (volunteer) directors.

At the end of the AGM, the WREN members were invited to help themselves to the refreshments. Having got there early, I’d already had a pint of Doom Bar (£2) and a couple of sandwiches, so I restricted myself to another sandwich and a cake. Other people came into the hall for the open meeting and slowly the guest speakers were assembled and ushered onto the stage.

First, after an introduction from Stephen, we had Peter Tutthill, president of the Wadebridge and District Museum (about to open in new premises) who enthused about the history of Wadebridge. He said he could go on for hours, but only had ten minutes. If I see he’s speaking again, it will be worth going to hear some of those hours. Steve Knightley is the newly elected LibDem county councillor for Wadebridge East and spoke about the unique attributes that Cornwall possesses, being close to the sea for wave and tide power, and wind power too, for that matter, and receiving more than the average amount of sunlight (2012 excluded). Sarah Prosser, chair of the Wadebridge Chamber of Commerce spoke of the fragility of relying on tourism for income and employment. A number of local businesses had been on the brink, saved by the sunshine we had this year. Wadebridge needs to brand itself as the low carbon town.

The next speaker was a primary schoolgirl, Maisy New, who thanked us for preserving the environment, keeping water fresh and clean, not letting the global temperature run away, and so on – the sting being that she was speaking as if from fifty years hence when we had actually done all these things. Let’s hope we can measure up to her expectations.

Professor Anne Carlisle, vice-chancellor of Falmouth University, was next, extolling Cornwall’s virtues (see Steve Knightley above). Cornwall has the potential to be the test bed for renewables. Julian German, the Cornwall Council portfolio holder for Economy and Culture, said that Cornwall Council is making loans to local energy groups. Renewable energy can be cheaper, and be a source of employment and revenue. Finally, Tim Smit, the founder of the Eden Project, spoke about achieving change. You get it, he said, by hanging on to the thing you want so that “they” know you are not going away. WREN must not allow itself to be seen, or be characterised, as hippie, as “other”. It must be “normal”, be “us”, not “them”, must include everyone in Wadebridge. Otherwise, it will be marginalised.

Discussion opened up to the floor, with people making points and asking questions. One person in particular was concerned with the landscape (which he quoted Julian German as saying was Cornwall’s greatest asset), and the detrimental impact renewable energy could have – windmills blighting the skyline, solar panel arrays covering the green fields – which would put off tourists and devalue the asset. This provoked a sometimes heated response, along the lines of not wanting Cornwall’s economy to be reliant on skittish tourists coming from the smoke to gawp at the scenery, that the landscape was by no means “natural”, having been crafted by farming over centuries, and that there would be no landscape if global warming were allowed to run unchecked. My instinctive reaction, too, was: “Nimby”; I like windmills.

But, you cannot be merely dismissive. We need people like this to apply the brakes every so often. I used to get very frustrated, when at work, with people who objected to projects, which were of obvious value and merit, and who slowed things down when speed seemed of the essence. Almost invariably, it turned out, the time taken to address the concerns of such people, to rethink aspects of the project, paid off in better projects with better outcomes. I’m sure it’s true for renewables projects as well. The lovers of landscape can’t have a veto, but nor can they be disregarded.

I’ll leave the last word, the long view, with the local historian, Peter. In their day, the mines disfigured the landscape, the china clay pits even more so, but Cornwall has absorbed them all, and they are part now of what people come to see. The same will happen with renewables.

Town Square

I went for a walk in Woking town centre on Monday. I was killing time between dropping Tris off for a hair appointment and collecting her at the end of it. I had one errand – getting a new key cut to replace one I had bent and almost snapped off in its lock – and that only took ten minutes or so. So I strolled out of the Peacocks shopping centre and into Town Square.

This used to be a fairly amorphous shape, not particularly well-defined and definitely not square. Now, well let’s say it’s in transition. Building works have raised the height of the Peacocks entrance and matched it with a new entrance to the old shopping centre. The library entrance is now a cafe and the library has been extended sideways with a new entrance no longer on the square. The space lost to the cafe has been compensated by moving library offices to a new floor and converting old office space to library usage (I nearly said ‘books’, but it could be computers and meeting areas as well – these new-fangled libraries). The Barclays Bank building and Christchurch remain as they were. The workmen were busy with new paving, so the walkways across the Square were narrow and fenced in, but it will look good when it’s done. The higher buildings for the shopping centres will give the Square a more closed-in feel, a more definite shape. But since the facades for the new buildings are curved glass, it’ll be even less a ‘Square’, and more of a circle. But I guess if you told your young children you were going to ‘Town Circus’ they’d be disappointed.

Going past the library, you get to the Theatre and the Council Offices, and past them is a new pedestrian and cycle crossing over Victoria Way, to link the canal towpath cycle route with the town centre. There has been a pedestrian crossing there for ages, which all the cyclists used anyway, but the concept was to have a distinct cycle crossing. Work began, kerbs were excavated and lowered, work stopped. Some problem with the traffic lights, apparently. Thus it remained for many months, many many months. Until now! The crossing is complete, the tarmac looks shiny, and when the green crossing light comes on, there are two – one green man and one green bicycle, right next to each other. So that’s how you know it’s a cycle crossing as well.

Except, except… after waiting for so long, the crossing was completed just as the canal bridge was taken down and the towpath closed, due to the building works for the new WWF headquarters on Brewery Road. So now the crossing goes only to the Lightbox gallery, a worthy destination, but an anti-climax. I used the crossing anyway, and found the Lightbox closed too (as it is on Mondays, I realised), but it was worth it to halt all the traffic…

Why are car websites so bad?

I was intrigued by an Infiniti advert about its new hybrid model (Infiniti = posh Nissan, a bit like a Lexus is not a Toyota), so I went to the website. The site takes a while to load on less-than-hyperspeed Cornish broadband – lots of moving graphics and fine pictures of cars – but is singularly uninformative when you get there. The model I was intrigued by is front and centre of the home page, as you might expect for something being actively promoted, and you can click on the image to get to a page specific to that model. When you get there, you find a picture of the car which you can click to rotate so you can see it from different angles and a running news strip of its umpteen wondrous features. Clicking on the picture and the news strip does nothing. Nothing else seems specifically connected.

There is a general “download brochure” button, from which you have to re-state the model you are interested in (several clicks) and then enter your name and contact details, without which it will not let you download anything. Stuff that. I am rapidly losing interest in the car, and the brand. And the company.

However, in a spirit of undaunted exploration I click on the name of the model range in the top banner, from which in only one more click I arrive at another, different page for the model. Here I find some information. Why couldn’t this be the page I was first taken to? It doesn’t contain an overwhelming amount, and I had to wait a couple of seconds every time I clicked for the next piece, but it’s better than nothing. Just.

I hope their cars are better designed than their website, that’s all.

I’m not going to buy one.

For comparison I tried the Ford website: moving pictures everywhere, unasked-for music, and information only in tiny chunks. Hence my opening hypothesis: all car websites are bad. Can anyone find a counter-example to prove me wrong?

Gender Balance

I’ve just watched a piece on Newsnight (BBC) on the state of British manufacturing industry and how the economy needs to be rebalanced between services and manufacturing. What struck me was the composition of the panel discussing it. There were a presenter, an entrepreneur, an academic, an MP and a journalist. All five were women.

If all five had been men, I wouldn’t have gone to the blog with it, but the fact that they were all women is noteworthy. It happens so rarely. I even called Diana in to see it, since she generally complains at the lack of women on discussion panels, be they serious (Newsnight, Question Time) or not (Have I Got News For You, QI, Mock The Week).

They were not taking a “woman’s point of view” on manufacturing. They were not discussing “women’s manufacturing”. They were the people called in to discuss British manufacturing and doing it as well as anybody. In fact, I liked the lack of raised voices and the presence of rational argument.

Excellent!  Let’s have more of it, so we get to the stage where it’s no longer unusual enough to comment on.

Keep going, BBC. A few more like this and you’ll have started to make amends for the Sports Personality of the Year shortlist.