Harvesting Sunshine and Wind in Rustic Cornwall

My wife and I thought about visiting England’s fabled southwest region of Devon and Cornwall for many years.

B14 Solar Farm
Published June 20, 2013 9:01 PM
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B14 Solar FarmMy wife and I thought about visiting England’s fabled southwest region of Devon and Cornwall for many years.

By Bill Lawyer 

B14 Solar FarmMy wife and I thought about visiting England’s fabled southwest region of Devon and Cornwall for many years. In our European travels, we’ve enjoyed getting the feel of ancient villages steeped in culture and legend, rugged coastlines, hiking paths, and locally sourced culinary experiences. So when we found out about the Backroads Travel Company’s Corners of Cornwall tour, we signed up for the six-night, seven-day trip this spring.

Striking out from a hotel by London’s Kensington Gardens, we rode in a 16-passenger mini-bus through the western suburbs, past the exits for LEGOLAND and Windsor Castle, until we hit the rolling countryside of Wiltshire County.

We made the obligatory stops at Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral, but after that our driver/guide turned off the two-full-lane “red” roads (as they appear on the maps), and onto the “yellow and black” roads.

As we headed southwest toward the Jurassic Coastal town of Lyme Regis, we were frequently so surrounded by hedgerows that we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us. Every now and then we’d encounter a tractor or car coming toward us, and the drivers would have to negotiate which vehicle had to back up until a wide enough spot could be found to get by.

Some of these roads are not shown at all on any maps.

And yet, as we moved along through the countryside, even in the most remote areas, four sights were encountered over and over again: beautiful fields of yellow rapeseed, sheep gazing in pastures, high-tech wind turbines (wind farms), and vast arrays of solar panels (sun farms).

B14 SheepWe weren’t surprised to see some wind and sun farms, as countries around the world are moving forward to promote alternative energy sources. But it got to the point where they seemed to be everywhere — and England is a country that is known for its foggy and drizzly weather.

The proliferation of these high-tech items was not part of our guide’s daily discussions about the sights we were scheduled to see, however. Those briefings focused on the political, cultural, and economic history of the region, with a dose of references to the possibility that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table might have carried out their adventures and intrigues in Cornwall.

After we returned from our trip, I started looking into the development and scope of the region’s ubiquitous alternative energy generators. Since firms in our part of the United States are now embarking on the development of alternative energy sources, perhaps there are some lessons to be learned.

I discovered that Cornwall and the Southwest actually have the best potential for both wind and solar power in England. Some of the country’s first wind farms, in the 1990s, were installed in Cornwall. A map on the Cornwall County Council’s website shows how extensively the region’s wind farms have spread in the last twenty years.

The same is true about solar panels, although solar farming only started recently. Cornwall’s first commercial solar farm was built at a disused tin mine at Wheal Jane, near Truro. It was switched on in 2011 and its 5,680 solar panels installed by a solar energy contractor produce enough electricity to power about 430 homes.

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According to British government statistics, the capacity in all of Southwest England grew from 12 megawatts in 2010 to over 90 megawatts in 2012.  The number of solar farm projects went from 7,500 to 55,000 in the same period.

Unlike wind farms, the construction of solar farms does interfere with some kinds of agricultural production — you can’t grow crops, for one. However, I noticed several farms near the hotel that we stayed at in Lyme Regis, where sheep were happily coexisting with the panels.

I have to admit that the solar panels take away from the bucolic vistas of Cornwall’s traditional topography. And while solar and wind power farms don’t pollute the way fossil fuels do, they still take energy to build, install, and operate.

But they provide the promise that Cornwall will be able to generate a significant portion of its total energy needs in their own backyard.

Not everyone in Cornwall is happy about the recent bumper crop of high-tech energy farms. A recently formed group called RATS (Residents Against TurbineS, based near Truro, is trying to stop the expansion of wind farms in the area, on aesthetic, traffic, and noise grounds. They point out, that in the last several years, two turbines have toppled over. Fortunately, no one was injured.

The RATS website includes a graphic showing that the highest turbines stand nearly as tall as Truro Cathedral (where we enjoyed a fabulous lunch-time choral performance by InChoir – check them out on YouTube).

As we consider the possibility of wind turbines in Long Island Sound, and solar panels on the roofs of office buildings along Theodore Fremd, let’s consider the case of Cornwall.

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