Book Review: The Wave Hub Chronicles by Lucy Wells

Posted: June 7, 2012 by Peter J in book review, nature, non-fiction, technology/industry
Tags: , , , ,

“What he couldn’t say outright was that Nature was getting the better of them, that it felt like a battle, that they were squirming under the gaze of the TV camera’s microscope.”

From November 2009 to January 2011, Lucy Wells’ home on Hayle Towans overlooked the development work for the wave hub – a relatively massive experimental project (something like £30 million from SW, EU and UK) coordinated by SWRDA. Each chapter of the book covers a month of her observations on this work.

The contrast of industrial and elemental factors – embodied in the transient struggles of contractors to implement their masters’ schemes for energy production in truce with nature – is so apt a theme for the history of Hayle as to make this chronicle’s premise recursive. Consider: the mouth of the Hayle estuary is a superb spot where a colourful lacuna of Cornish heavy industry’s bones is slowly veiled by a skein of nature’s fabric – and then swept clear again by both mankind and the inhuman powers of tide and time – a place where the environment is sometimes more dynamic even than the titanic forces of industrial revolution. An apt place, then, to land the cable from the world’s first wave hub – on the former site of Hayle’s historic power station. Lucy Wells’ viewpoint looks both inland to this ‘tethering’ of the experimental wave hub’s cable, and in the other direction, to St Ives bay and the unbidden, primal chaos beyond.

The spirit of the book is pagan, elliptically tho’ not insistently so, and certainly in the sense of the word’s original derivation: rustic, practical, more bound to the non-human than human aspects of the world.

There are no drawings or maps – as in many top-down projects, I guess the designers were none too keen on sharing their know-how. Nor is there detail of the financial manoeuvres implied by the project’s stuttering progress – no doubt this was on a need-to-know basis too. The author does well in teasing some nuts-and-bolts information at least (too little to satisfy engineering readers) from workers. Highlighted in the book is the cosmopolitan variety of contractors who arrive from all parts to do most of the work (drillers from Lancashire, sparkies from London, cable makers from Cleveland, shipping from Finland), and the variety of attitudes and skills they bring. My favourites were the surveyors from Chester who were unsure as to whether they were on the right beach. It’s not a case study of engineering by an insider, but of engineers by an outsider – SWRDA would probably be the only party able to account an over-arching history of the wave hub’s installation campaign and, since the project’s apparently ‘rocky road’ might disincline them to do so, this book’s at least a good insight.

The main thrust of the book is not in technical details, it’s on the effect of the place on the people (rather than the other way round). It contains around 165 pages, with a dozen or so black & white photos to lend extra atmosphere. Cheeky humour provides light to thoughtful shade: the author’s swimming and Tai Chi forms on the beach and dunes clearly give her a lot of time to ponder insights into the nature of Nature, and what we and it do to each other. Realistic reporting of interactions with contractors, visitors and residents (one of the persons mentioned, the relocated gentleman has, I think, died since publication) fills out a human side, often warmly sympathetic – the author’s reporting is cooperative, not judgmental. Gonzo journalism this is not, but it is a sort of investigative slice of industrial life. Ironically it reminds me a little of George Henwood’s Cornwall’s Mines and Miners (1855) – a classic descriptive work for prospective investors. If this book is encouraging us to invest, though, it’s not in the way that we used to.

The wave hub itself (which in the book’s narrative is seen only from afar) is embedded about 10 miles N of St Ives. Up to 4 connected wave-powered devices could safely transmit up to 4-5 megaWatts each, should they generate that much, via the hub, and thence ashore via the subsea HV cable @11kiloVolts, which the onshore transformer substation (pictured on the cover) can step-up (from 11 to 33 kiloVolts) to grid distribution voltage. In total, the current setup of hub, cable and onshore transformer thus provides for up to about 20 megaWatts of power to be generated and fed into the Cornish grid, which, with a nominal and fairly generous average household consumption of about 5 kiloWatts,  means that the system could supply about four thousand such homes. The system can be upgraded to more than double that capacity (i.e. 50MW instead of the present 20MW max, if the hub transmission voltage were also increased to 33kV from present 11kV). Of course, the wave hub system’s purpose is experimental, and I wish we could guzzon and start moulding or welding some things together to plug into it. One firm, Ocean Energy of Cobh, has placed in Galway bay a prototype of the experimental device they’ve agreed to connect to the wave hub soon, the first so far.

The book was self-published / produced by Coherent Visions, London 2011 – if you have trouble obtaining it, Bigglestone’s hardware store at Penpol Terrace (near Foundry Square) in Hayle is a sure bet for a copy, or you can

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