Wadebridge looks 'back to the future' on energy

Harris Foundry The Harris Foundry was one of many successful heavy industries in Wadebridge
Harris Foundry ads Harris Foundry creations include a water-powered turbine
Wadebridge electric site The timber framed building was the Wadebridge Electricity Supply Company
Electricity poster The electric firm, created in 1926, used diesel-powered generators
Stuart Chamberlain And the present - farmer Stuart Chamberlain at Trevisquite Manor heats his farmhouse, two holiday homes and water for the dairy with a biomass boiler

A Cornwall town's innovative past could be the key to its future renewable energy needs.



In 1926 the large house that now stands in Gonvena Hill, Wadebridge, was a power station.

The Wadebridge Electricity Supply Company's power station was created using diesel to power generators.

The town was "pretty self-sufficient" in energy, according to Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN).

And now it says there is "no reason" why the town cannot go back to providing its energy from local sources.

Start Quote

You can imagine a new form of prosperity in our market towns based on local energy markets”

End Quote Professor Stephen Frankel WREN

WREN has created an exhibition at the town hall that shows how Wadebridge not only supplied much of its energy, but was a centre of industrial innovation.

From foundries pumping out pistons to engineers, millwrights and machinists, Wadebridge was a powerhouse of industry.

In the 1840s, the Harris Foundry was set up and won international awards for its innovative pumps, pistons and water wheels, which were used to produce energy.

In the 1920s, the Iron Brothers set up another foundry in Polmorla, confirming the town as a centre of innovation and excellence in engineering and energy production.

Nationalisation in the 1960s and distribution through the National Grid meant Wadebridge lost its energy independence.


Communities can become "self-sufficient" in energy in several ways.

If, for example, 100 average UK citizens share one big, well-located, two-megawatt wind turbine, which produces on average of about 12,500 kWh of energy per day, then that would completely cover their total primary energy consumption (at 125 kWh per day per person).

If the community have more energy-efficient lifestyles than average - for example, if they live in well-insulated buildings and travel in the most efficient vehicles, then the number covered by one turbine could be significantly higher.

I call this "approximate" self-sufficiency for two reasons.

First, the wind output will sometimes be greater and sometimes less than the community's energy demand, so to keep supply and demand in balance, they would also need energy stores such as batteries.

Second, whereas the wind turbine produces electricity, most people's lifestyles demand energy in multiple forms - for example transport is today mainly powered by liquid fuels.

Here are some ways to solve this liquid-fuel issue - the community could obtain liquid fuels from used chip fat, but to supply the average UK citizen's 30 kWh per day of liquid fuel would require the consumption of about three litres of chip fat per day per person.

The community could produce bio diesel from oil seed rape, but you would need a whole hectare of land to fuel just one average person's liquid fuel demand.

Britain is not big enough for every person to have a hectare of bio diesel.

Perhaps the most promising solution is to switch to vehicles powered by hydrogen or by electricity.

Happily, electric vehicles are significantly more energy-efficient than petrol and diesel vehicles.

In sum, energy self-sufficiency is possible, but it may not be quite as easy as you thought.

'Landscape issues'

Most of those heavy industries are also gone, but the exhibition hopes to inspire a new generation about the possibilities of renewable energy.

Professor Stephen Frankel of WREN is convinced that it could bring cheaper energy and more jobs.

"History suggests that people here are up for innovation, so the point of this exhibition is to see if they are interested in this opportunity," he said.

"There are enough renewable energy resources around here to supply the town's needs, so why don't we use it locally and control it locally?"

He envisages a country of "energy islands", producing their own energy and pumping excess energy into areas as needed.

Consumption would be controlled by so-called "smart" meters, enabling people to consume electricity at the times when it is most plentiful and cheapest.

Wadebridge has been chosen by Cornwall Council to be a test-bed for the type of smart grid that will allow local demand and generation to be aligned, with the option for large scale energy storage.

Smit 'respect'

Other Cornwall communities such as Ladock have hit practical problems.

Planning permission was rejected there after objections by local people about the effect on the landscape - despite the offer of a share in the profits to the community.

Prof Frankel, said: "People are completely entitled to their own opinions.

"The point of this exhibition is that those opinions should be based on a good understanding of the true options.

"Clearly there are landscape issues in terms of renewables. That is a legitimate concern.

"But if people also understand the possible benefits of renewables then we have a more mature discussion."


  • Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network
  • 2010: Founded as not-for-profit co-op
  • Aims to produce 30% of Wadebridge's electricity from local renewable energy resources by 2015
  • 2011: Opened Energy Shop with advice on renewables and energy saving
  • Has assisted in installation of solar PV arrays totalling in excess of 1.2 megawatts
  • Members: 904

He said Wadebridge was spending nearly £13m a year on electricity, twice as much as its tourist income.

Guest speaker, Eden Project founder Sir Tim Smit, said he was "full of respect" for Wadebridge's energy ambitions,

"Here we have community action and proper leadership in harness, a very rare commodity," he said.

"It is only by having informed muscular exhibition, interpretation and actual implementation that we can break our addiction to fossil fuels and turn citizens into people who believe we are not helpless, but active agents in a future that is ours to make."

Wadebridge Energy Futures is at Wadebridge Town Hall until 16:00 BST.

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