Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My plans were much more vague as I readied to leave Wales and head into the Northeast England coalfields of Yorkshire. I had been told that there were lots of former mining towns in this area, so I spent the next several days in and around York, Doncaster, and Sheffield.

York is best known as a touristic historical small city with loads of Viking and Medieval sites, though there are both former mine sites and renewable energy projects in the surrounding area. I soon found out about a former coal mine site about 8 miles away that’s slated to be turned into a “renewable energy park.” After attempting to get in contact with the development group heading the project with no luck, I made a visit to see if any progress had been made. It was a pretty grim sight when I was there; all broken glass, mangled fences, and busted up concrete, but apparently the site has already been purchased by Science City York and it’s slated to have construction start in the next few months. According to this recent press release, they are planning on having a 5MW anaerobic digester and a 22MW biomass gasification system there; this is very much along the lines of the type of coalfield redevelopment work I hope to do when I return to KY. Otherwise the town was a very tourist-friendly example of old-world British charm with a healthy dose of creepy Medieval torture-related attractions.

The next stop was Doncaster. Whenever someone had mentioned this town to me, it was usually referred to as somewhere to be avoided if possible. It was once a major coal mining area and I was interested to see how an English former coal mining town compares to the Welsh valleys. I didn’t quite expect what I found. A nice family directed me to the site of the old mine works and coal slag tip; I didn’t see it initially and had to get directions from a local fellow walking his dog in a nearby park. The slag tip, once I found it hidden away in a wooded park, was basically just a big long mound with patches of stunted trees and grasses mixed in with rocks, much like a strip mine in Kentucky. Beyond there was the location of the old shaft mine pit works, which had once been massive. There was absolutely no trace of it now; it was as if it had never existed. In its place was a big, generic, newer-looking council estate (AKA housing projects) with bands of bored and listless teenagers roaming about. To be honest the town was much bigger and nicer than I expected. The South Wales valleys were much rougher and more run down, but I actually preferred them as they seemed to have more individuality and charm.

The next day I met with Henry Wilson, one of the main directors of ReGro, a farmer cooperative based out of a small town near York. Most of the Yorkshire countryside is typical flat farmland with lots of square fields of hay, corn, and wheat. This group was formed with the sole intention of working with local farmers to establish commercial scale willow plantings to supply the feedstock needs of a nearby power station that has a commitment to burn a certain amount of local biomass along with coal. This coop has developed over the course of 12 years and now includes 45 growers in the Yorkshire area. They purchased a modified sugarcane harvester from Australia which is owned cooperatively and taken around to the different farm sites to harvest the 3-4 year old willow stands in the winter. We talked about the myriad issues and aggravations that it has taken for ReGro to develop a viable biomass energy coop business in the UK. Henry was very keen to provide consulting services to people and groups seeking to set up similar systems and avoid the challenges that they have had to face over the past decade. I am hoping to get something vaguely similar going on the strip mined areas of Appalachia, though I’m personally looking at more of a diversified native agroforestry approach that doesn’t require chemical inputs and which doesn’t use land that could be growing food crops.

I then left the Yorkshire region and headed up to the town and surrounding area of Durham. This turned out to be a fairly small and well-preserved town, with a central area that looked to be circa 17-18th century and a massive old cathedral that was quite awe-inspiring to be inside of. My first meeting was with Ray Hudson, a professor-turned-administrator who had specialized in the social history of labor struggles, especially regarding the UK coalfields. Dr. Hudson came from a coal mining family near Durham, and he was very down to earth right off the bat.

As we talked over some Thai food that he graciously treated me to, the realities of what had happened to the coal mines in the UK finally began to click. The coal mining industry here was nationalized (made part of the government) in 1947, largely because of strong union efforts to create a safer and more secure workplace. However, this eventually became their undoing. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, she started to actualize the hopes of many conservative capitalists and the fears of workers and labor rights activists by pushing through legislation to privatize many sectors of the economy that had been nationalized in decades past. This included steelworks, ship building, the national train system, water companies, and coal mining. In order to make this plan a reality, the conservative Tory government had to take on and destroy the extremely strong federation of miner’s unions which propped up all of the other unions.

A long and very violent battle between miners and imported police ensued during 1984-1985 when the mine unions called a national strike that ultimately ended with the severe weakening of the unions’ ability to exist, organize, and call strikes. During this time some legislation had been passed allowing Britain to source abroad for cheaper imported coal and steel products. By the end of the 80s, the UK coal industry was nearly extinct. In no way did this mean that Britain no longer burned coal or that their reserves were gone; on the contrary, they still have quite a bit under the ground and continue to burn massive amounts of coal to this day (in addition to having a huge nuclear program), but it’s mostly shipped in from Poland, Russia, and Australia.

One final aspect that I found striking was the fact that the union miners had staunchly opposed the onset of open cast mining (i.e. surface mining) in the 1970s and 80s. The open cast operations were run by private construction and haulage companies rather than the national unionized mining group, and it was seen as a direct threat to their jobs. Overall this goes to show that situations like this are rarely black and white, good vs. bad, environmentalist liberals vs. pro-employment conservatives. The Thatcher government was very dedicated to promoting private capitalism at all costs, and ultimately this was the reason behind the closure of UK’s coal mines, not the rabid environmentalists that the US coal industry would like to blame for any and all layoffs. I would argue that short-sighted economic policies like these have vastly disrupted working-class communities all across Britain. I honestly don’t see how the argument can be made that it’s cheaper for the country to import coal when the former miners and their descendents are largely relying on government unemployment checks. The cost of supporting people who could have been working surely has to exceed the savings from importing coal from abroad; nevermind the social cost of tearing away the fabric that held these communities together with nothing else to take its place.

I decided to take a bus to some of the old mining towns around Durham to see what the present day reality of the area looks like. In Fishburn, I met some very friendly older folks in a pub who pointed me to where the old mine works used to be. This town at least had a memorial to the miners in the center and a few scattered old coal buggies that now had flowers planted in them. Just like Doncaster there was a scraggly slag tip on the outskirts, and there was a desolate attempt at an industrial park on the site where the pithead used to be. I then went to Trimdon Grange, where the only trace of a coal mine I could find was a big wheel that was once used to raise and lower men into the shaft which had been converted into a piece of playground equipment. Seaham had some kind of weird modern art sculpture that was meant to be a monument to the miners of the past which had details of the town’s mining history inscribed around the base. This town once had underground mine works that extended 6 miles under the ocean floor, and apparently ponies were used in the mines until the 1980s.

One thing I couldn’t help but notice on the bus ride was the presence of massive wind turbines all around the farming landscape that surrounded the post-mining towns. Whenever I went into a pub I asked the people (especially former miners) how they felt about wind energy in a former coal mining area. The responses were uniformly ambivalent; no one seemed to care one way or the other. The locals all said that there was little to no local employment provided by the wind farms, and that they were supposed to be putting profit back into the community for “regeneration” projects but they didn’t know how or if that was actually happening.

I stopped off in Newcastle on my way up to Scotland to meet up with some professors that I had only found out about a day beforehand. This trip has been quite tricky to plan out; I feel like I could spend all day in front of a computer figuring out where to go and finding the cheapest tickets to get there, but then I barely get the chance to just get out and explore an area. I’ve had to strike a balance between randomly chasing leads and coming across contacts and then hoping that I can manage to track them down during the brief period of time that I am in their area. It turns out that some very innovative work is happening at Newcastle University which is right up my alley; I just wish I had found out about it earlier.

Dr. Bilsborrow with the agriculture department was kind enough to give me about an hour of his time to talk about the Center for Renewable Energy from Land, or CREEL for short. This project is actually quite similar to the work going on at Aberystwyth University in Wales, wherein a diversity of biomass inputs are optimized within a multi-faceted energy production system. The particularly interesting part about Newcastle Uni is that they are just now beginning a portion of this project that is focused on making use of land that was previously surface mined for coal to produce bioenergy crops while also rebuilding soil quality; basically exactly what I have been planning to do in Kentucky. It was particularly justifying to meet a well-regarded scientist in another part of the world that has had more less the same ideas as me. We agreed to stay in touch throughout the future to keep updated on eachother’s projects, and there may even be the opportunity for cross-continent research collaboration.

I boarded a train up to Edinburgh, Scotland after my meetings in Newcastle, thereby ending my brief bit of time in Northeast England. I didn’t find this area quite as interesting as Wales, but I did thoroughly enjoy my time here and the people I came across. It seems as though the end of the mining era hasn’t hit this area quite as hard. The colliery towns are either near big population centers that still have some job base left (i.e. Leeds, Sheffield, etc.) or they’re pretty close to some nicer university towns (i.e. Durham and Newcastle). There also wasn’t the same presence of former worker housing that had turned into ghettos with angry and frustrated youth roaming around. Overall it seemed like the mining identity was less strong here than in South Wales; there was the resentment toward the Thatcher era beatdown, but people seemed to have just accepted that this is the way things are now.

Possibly other reasons exist for the disparity in how bad off the old mining towns are in South Wales as compared to England, but I would be purely speculating. Maybe the UK government is less concerned about development in Wales; maybe there has been more of an inherited culture of dependence on large, monolithic employers there. Either way, there was definitely less concern about preserving that history of a mining past in England. The issue that I still haven’t quite processed is how a people can virtually forget within a generation what their past was largely based on for over 300 years. In Appalachia, we constantly hear about how coal mining is our heritage and culture, and without it we have nothing. We’ve only really been mining back home for 120 years; some of these places in the UK first started in the 1600s. Apparently it is possible to suddenly no longer have mining as an employment base and not starve to death, but it seemed to me that it comes at a high social cost to jerk the rug out from under these communities without planning ahead for some kind of economic and cultural conversion.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sustainability Projects Around Mid Wales

I left the South Wales colliery valleys knowing that it had been an important experience, but feeling bereft from not having found any real solutions for a place that has given so much and received so little in return. My next stop would be the much more progressive area of Mid Wales, with a couple of specific spots in mind.

Overall I was hoping to start finding some examples of positive projects that could be applied to coalfield area regeneration. The first stop was the Center for Alternative Technology, or CAT for short. This place was recommended to me by some friends in the States who are ex-patriate Brits that had worked at CAT for about 6 years (we met at the Don Blankenship vs. Robert Kennedy Jr. debate in Charleston, WV of all places). CAT was started in the early 70s by a small group of creative idealists and legitimate engineers who took a landscape that consisted mainly of the leftover “slag tips” from slate mining and turned it into a multi-faceted institution of research, education, and ecotourism. It now has a global reputation as a very innovative and unique center that integrates many different sustainability-related themes under one umbrella.

As I wandered about the place, I was struck by all of the professional-looking displays that tackled most of the possible facets within renewable energy, organic agriculture, woodland management, and general sustainable living. Maybe I had expected more of a hippy look to the place, but overall it seemed quite normal and presentable to me. Kids were playing with displays about passive solar design and micro hydropower, parents were checking out timelines about the development of wind energy, and volunteers/interns were pushing wheelbarrows around while working in the on-site gardens. I ended up getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the old slate mine and the mountains that overlooked the place from a couple of these interns, and later found myself on the nearby beach for a stunning sunset.

I met up with the director of the place, Paul Allen, on my second day there to learn about the history and inner workings. Apparently everyone who works there (including Paul) makes the same salary, which works out to about $25,000 per year. It’s also controlled by the workers with no overarching CEO calling the shots. The constant stream of interns and volunteers (most on 6 month placements) bring an evolving set of new ideas to the place which helps to keep things fresh and interesting. In general the place has been financially sound over the years, though it is a constant effort to ensure economic well-being. They are very lucky in that they get a lot of visitors due to their proximity to the touristic destinations of the West Wales coast and the North Wales mountains (visitors are charged about $10 to come in and walk around for the day). CAT has been involved with some large-scale policy work recently, such as the “Zero Carbon Britain” report that serves as an environmental/economic stimulus package recommendation and the work-in-progress film called “Power and Place” which aims to position Wales as a potential leader in the new “eco-industrial” revolution, just as it played a major role in the original industrial revolution.

As we talked in the pavilion under a roof of solar panels, a couple of things kept going through my head. CAT has successfully built a very innovative institution that is quite inspiring and could serve as a model for many other rural communities and places that have been dependent on extraction, just like Wales. At the same time, there are some real issues that have to be examined to be able to relate this to the real world. First, the solar panels, wind turbines, hydropower, and biomass boiler systems have all largely been possible because of grant funding and support from the UK government and wealthy liberal English donors; I have to wonder how long it will take for the solar panels to pay for themselves with all of these cloudy Welsh days and how that can translate into the lives of the average person living in the area. Second, I couldn’t help but notice that very few if any of the visitors while I was there were actually Welsh; they were nearly all middle class English liberals on vacation.

I’m less concerned about the first point than the second. Renewables will eventually be competitive as the cost of fossil fuel extraction continues to increase; in the meantime I think it’s a worthwhile use of taxpayer and philanthropic money to help get pilot projects off the ground so that people can see what possibilities are out there. However, I do think that it is very important that local people in rural areas be reached out to, especially when they wouldn’t normally be apt to check out a “green” project that was put in place by outsiders. One staff member at CAT remarked that if the local Welsh people weren’t coming then it was their own fault since they now had free admission to the place whereas tourists have to pay. That may be, but sometimes you have to make a bit of an effort to bring people in who wouldn’t otherwise take interest.

While still in the Machynlleth area, I met with a long-term employee of Dulas, a CAT spin-off company. Started back in the mid 1970s to commercialize a solar-powered vaccine refrigerator that a CAT engineer had designed, this for-profit company has grown into a world-leader in the design/installation fields for commercial-scale solar, wind, hydro, and most recently biomass technologies. They’re one of the most established and respected company in the UK for this kind of work, having written the field guide for wind power surveys, installed solar and hydro systems for rural electrification all over the world, and helped to pioneer legislation to make renewables more viable. Dulas has a worker-owned structure where all employees own shares and receive dividends based on how much they work, and is arguably one of the largest companies in the world with this structure (around 75 employees). They managed to have over 1 million GBP in profit last year, all while contributing a significant portion of their time and energy to humanitarian efforts and local workforce training in the areas where their installations are done, ranging from remote sections of Africa to low-income areas in Wales.

The final place to visit in Wales was Aberystwyth University. A retired professor at Bangor University (back at the beginning of my trip) had mentioned that his daughter is working on biomass energy here, and before I knew it Kerrie had organized a full tour of the work going on at Aberystwyth for me. This place has a very diverse and comprehensive set of departments working together on energy crops, biomass energy processes, and the economic viability therein. I felt very lucky as 4 different research scientists showed me around their respective projects, ranging from pyrolysis, anaerobic digestion, willow and miscanthus breeding, and cellulosic ethanol. The approach here was focused on the most efficient way to make use of a variety of agriculturally-based inputs in a way that generates the most energy and creates the most beneficial byproducts. This is exactly the kind of system that I would like to set up when I get back to Kentucky, so it was very nice to see that other people are thinking along the same lines.

It was a bit strange to leave Wales at the end of 5 weeks. The place felt strangely home-like, and I was beginning to feel the vortex that could suck me in and keep me here for another 6 months if I let it. I'm sure that I could continue to dig up more and more interesting places, people, and projects if I continued to stay, but the same could be said of anywhere that I'll be stopping on this trip. With that, I will leave you with this nugget of wisdom about the many contributions Wales has made to world history.