Different kinds of good weather: sustainable energy initiatives in sensitive landscapes, a curatorial perspective

Article from my estimed collegue Liz Green – please read!

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

            Ruskin

In Wales we have embraced this mantra, and are putting it to practical use. The concept of siting a power station in a Grade I Registered Park or on the side of the nation’s highest mountain may sound like a bizarre or, at very least, puzzling suggestion. However, this is precisely what we are doing within the Reptonian landscape at Plas Newydd, and beside the Watkin Path, one of the most popular and dramatic routes to the summit of Snowdon, near to the famous Gladstone Rock, and amid the evocative ruined structures of the Cwm Llan copper workings.

The vision of the National Trust is to reduce our use of fossil fuels by 50% by the year 2020. This means that not only must we become more aware of our consumption, and frugal about energy use, but that we must start using the natural, renewable resources around us, the sunshine, the rain and the wind, different kinds of good weather.

Jonathan Porritt, speaking at the Trust’s Fit For the Future? Conference in April 2012, reminded us that the key to changing mind-set, and thereby influencing behaviour, is not to be found in the large-scale generating schemes, away from our consciousness, but in the Small, community-based initiatives that are part of the daily landscape of our lives. Could empowering communities to generate and control their own renewably-sourced energy be the key to breaking down those final barriers of perception of the National Trust as an organisation of large houses and collections; remote and removed? 

As an organisation whose principal purpose is to care for some of the most exquisitely beautiful historic landscapes, gardens and buildings, electricity generation could appear to be a particularly delicate issue. However, my curatorial instincts suggest that, rather than shying away from these technologies and hiding behind the notion that power generation is something that happens in vast, unsightly structures beyond our boundaries, we should be demonstrating that it is perfectly possible to design and site the means of harnessing nature’s energy such that they do not detract from their setting, but, like the romantic ruin, the industrial archaeology and the agricultural shaping of our entire British landscape, become a part of it. The intention of our founders was not that time should stand still leaving places unseen, untouched and un-productive, but that our open spaces should be life-enhancing and beneficial to society.   

The park at Plas Newydd, on Anglesey, has recently been furnished with an array of photovoltaic cells which contribute 45,000kwh of energy per annum, or roughly a fifth of the electricity need of Plas Newydd, reducing the mansion’s reliance on fossil fuels. Following very careful consideration and a detailed analysis of the development and significance of the landscape and the principal viewpoints, the array has been sited in a hay meadow, which is within the former parkland as reworked by Humphry Repton. Their simple elegance adds a hint of the Victorian glass house to the landscape and, by virtue of their being raised slightly off the ground, sheep continue to graze around them and orchids, abundant in this meadow, to flourish.   

At Cwm Llan, on the south slope of Snowdon, a much painted and photographed waterfall bountifully demonstrates an abundance of water-born energy, as does the fact that the first hydro-electrical generator was installed here in 1892. This is to be harnessed and turned into 640KW (or 1,900,000kwh energy per annum, which equates approximately to the energy consumed by 7.6 mansions in a year)

of electricity, without any attendant pollution or damage and from a perpetually renewing source. The weir extraction point is being constructed now and over the coming months a 600mm diameter pipe will be laid, both above and below ground, working with the contours of the mountainside, existing walls and woodland, within a sublime landscape of huge nature conservation and historical value. 

Octavia Hill, writing about the importance of access to open, green space, trees, sunlight and the elements wrote

we all want beauty for the re­freshment of our souls. Sometimes we think of it as a luxury, but when God made the world, He made it very beautiful, and meant that we should live amongst its beauties 

It is my belief that our founders would have applauded the initiative being taken by the Trust today and that one in particular of our Sustainability Principles truly embodies their original intentions: 

We will be light on our feet, innovative and creative, adaptive and responsive, fit for the future, learned from the past

 

The photovoltaic cells in the meadow at Plas Newydd

The photovoltaic cells in the meadow at Plas Newydd

 
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