The Thirty Years War: going with the tide at Atlantic edge

The android reporter looks back at the big decisions not taken in 2018

IWA Agenda, July 2048

Mediator: KAL 9000 #mod_I-950#VirusfreeCert:030602048


The offices of YnniMorCymru are spick, span and modern. One wall is a constantly shifting Holoscreen. Tasteful, local (real, physical) art decorates another, and the third is lined with a bank of retro digital energy meters, logging today’s cumulative generation.


Cardiff whirs upwards in a blur as the juice flows to the trains, trams and pods on the Metro, and to the molten salt vats for later use as heat; Conwy is static, tide held back for the Manchester evening kettle rush. Swansea ticks on modestly; obsolete now, and dwarfed in terms of energy generation by the newer lagoons, but a constant, useful reminder of how close they all came to not existing.


The fourth wall is, of course, all window – looking out to what’s left of Swansea far below, and out to the sea and the English coast. Nice digs.


“Impressive isn’t it?”


I turn around. The Chair of YMC nods at the energy counters. He is as dapper as his office; spry and trim in three-piece check, belying his 70-plus years.


“Yes, yes it. Is. Thanks for seeing me Mr Chubb.”


He shakes my hand (“Call me Dai”) and nods to a chair – A probably-original Hans Wegner; I guess if you generate half your country’s power, some small luxuries are justified – and sits opposite me.


“Not at all. It’s rare these days anyone bothers me. I’m almost retired.”


“Well I thought… as it is thirty years since this all really began, it would be worth our readers knowing…”


I start with the question that has been nagging at me during the week of DeepPrep for the interview.


“…what if you hadn’t done it? What if you’d just given up, back then in 2018?”


Chubb looks thoughtful. He leans forward and a coffee cup morphs from the desk into his waiting hand. He glances at the power meters. My own numbers whirr in the upper right of my vision, logging audio; visual; scent. All just backup for my Moleskine this time. He doesn’t answer me directly.


“We forget sometimes really how bad it was. I mean, in many ways it’s worse now of course, but back in ’18 the country was looking for, needing, something – anything that was positive. Especially… then.”


He doesn’t say the B-word – doing so could get a public servant sanctioned or fired of course, even in sort-of-independent Wales, but it hangs between us nonetheless, the not-saidness logged no doubt by the micro-drones for later analysis.


“And it was so close to not happening. So close.”


“What was the key to getting it done?” I ask, “Or at least started?”


Chubb shrugs.


“There were many keys. Of course, I wasn’t in post back then, but… I think the big thing was the realization – after the project was canned at UK level – that the whole system was broken. Political, energy markets, technical, you name it. We were starting to build out new nuclear that everyone knew would be over budget, and late, and with no local spillovers beyond the ditch-digging and switch flicking. And with government equity for that of course. And the poor old grid was completely full of Solar PV clogging everything up to the benefit of a few private energy companies and plenty of nice middle class householders…”


Chubb trails off, then takes a sip of SynCoff and finds his thread again.


“So the realization that not all those barriers were going away – that a solution had to be found locally, that really spurred things.”


“What was the most difficult part – in the early days?” I ask.


“Tidal Lagoon themselves.” he says, immediately, “I was on board by then and negotiations were… tortuous. Rightly so of course; they’d spent almost a decade and huge effort getting this technically doable, and the approach obviously had massive application elsewhere, as we’ve seen proved. They could have walked away. So us coming in with a buyout offer for the whole shooting match was maybe… indelicate. But once we’d sorted the partnership and equity shares… Well, we’re still working together clearly! I think TLP keeping the non-Welsh returns whilst we split the Welsh profits was key really. After that, mostly plain sailing.”


I gesture minutely and a holo of a 2018 web page flicks into the air between us, resplendent in 2D and mostly back and white. It is a BBC report on the cost of the electricity that would be produced by the first, Swansea power station. Dave grins.


“Ah the glorious Beeb. I really do miss them sometimes you know. Only sometimes!”


He becomes serious again.


“The cost was… an issue certainly. Ludicrous now, but a billion seemed a lot of money back then, especially when you had to borrow it.” He shakes his head. “But as if shoving another hundred million a year in to the NHS for a decade would make stuff all difference.”


“At least that’s still with us,” I say, acutely aware that my own maintenance is only free at point of repair following the tough human lessons of the 2020s. “So how did you get over that?”


“Oh a few ways. Key, I think, was to push even harder the system, if you like, or co-benefits. OK we’ve been proved right on innovation and tech export, but even in the very early days it was about attracting companies to the city region based on the green power, using the narrative to trial efficiency, storage and complementary renewables at all levels; house, street, town and region. And, OK I know they are temporary impacts, but maximizing local supply chains, labour use, training and stuff so people could see on the ground it was making a difference. I think some communist once said that if you needed jobs, just pay people to dig holes then fill them in again. We just dug more innovative holes. Of course, we still lost a lot of value across the border, but it was a bit easier to spend local after the launch of the Great Modern Age.”


I can hear the quotation marks in his voice for this last bit.


“So all that…” he continues “…Look, we made it not about keeping the lights on. Although stepping outside the grid did enable us to develop new customers of course, the big server guys, the Metro and the AquaFarms.”


There is a – real, arty, painted – picture on the wall of BwydMôrSyn, tethered off a sunset Rhyl. Growing Biobeef and generating its own ChlorElec with a little helping hand – or rather wire – from the Conwy lagoon.  


“And of course,” I say, “in the beginning they weren’t all energy projects?”


Chubb smiles a trifle sheepishly. I can see he’s thinking of the invisible micro-drones, buzzing around us, logging everything


“Well, no, of course back then we could build Swansea independently, but if you wanted to build Cardiff at 3.5 Gigawatts… well, even after it was clear that Swansea was going to work, UK GOV weren’t convinced on lagoons and they held the planning for big energy… So we just decided we needed a new road between Cardiff and the Blue route, which we were able to grant ourselves permission for, and then built it out at sea. We just shoved some turbines in, well just in case. Luckily as it turns out.”


He puts his head back and roars with laughter.


“A road! Can you believe it. A bloody road!”


I decide I like Dai Chubb. A lot. You can’t hear the hum of the MagnoRail cars speeding across on the Cardiff lagoon from here, but I can hear them in his laugh.


“So what’s next?”


He finishes his SynCoff with a gulp and places the cup back on the table. It is absorbed smoothly into the ink-black surface.


“For me… retirement. I’m going to LeviSurf around Snowdonia for a while and then maybe dip back in with consultancy a day a week. YnniMorCymru will carry on carrying on. We’re helping Tidal develop the new lagoons in West Africa and off Brazil; the Fundy and Korean ones were great, but it’s the application to smaller tidal reaches that’s really exciting. Of course,” – he laughs bitterly – “It was a damn sight harder to build when there were still fish in the sea.”


He stands up. Still things to do clearly. I stand and shake his hand, “Thanks again for seeing me.”


He grins. “A delight. And it’s nice to so something for actual, real print for a change.


“Yeah, I noticed the turntable in the corner.”


“Yep,” he says “still a retro geek. And print-only means I don’t have to do my hair.” He runs his hand across his thoroughly bald pate. I put away my pad, and ask the question, again.


“So… what if it had all gone wrong? What if you’d never got started?”


He wanders over to the window and looks into the distance. From here, even this high up, the plant-clad towers of Sheen EcoCity hide the bulk of the Hinkley reactors, cowering from the harsh sea behind their high walls, just entering decommissioning phase and with still no certainty as to whether their waste will end up in West Cumbria or West Africa. But I know that he knows exactly where they are.


“You don’t have to answer that.” I say.


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