Surfers Make Waves in British Battle of the Breaks
LONDON -- A political storm is looming over one of Britain's first wave power projects, the Wave Hub, which surfers fear will drain energy from the waves they ride along the Atlantic coast.
In one corner stand the local authorities and power companies, who say the 25 million pound ($49 million) experimental installation is vital to developing wave power systems and helping combat global warming.
In the other, the surfers of Cornwall on Britain's southwest peninsula, many of whom moved to the region specifically to catch those waves.
The European Union is hoping to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020: wave power is part of many efforts to reach that goal.
With an unusually high ratio of fanatics and a long history of campaigning against pollution, the surfing subculture knows how to make itself heard. But Wave Hub's potential impact on greenhouse gases has not won them over.
They say the installation, 10 miles (16 km) off the popular holiday destination of St Ives, will cast a shadow across their favourite beaches, draining the waves of energy and cropping their height.
"We will not stand by and not fight this," said Ben Farwagi of the London Surf Club, a regular visitor to the region.
"This is not just about one pilot project," he added. "It could lead to a whole string of Wave Hubs up and down our coast."
Half a million surfers ride the waves which pound Britain's Atlantic and North Sea coasts, compared to around 35,000 in 1990, says the British Surfing Association (BSA).
The Wave Hub project envisages a giant electrical terminal on the sea bed linking four wave power generators to the national power grid.
Project manager Nick Harrington says the installation is vital to developing new wave power technology: "This is intended as a place where people can come and test their machines," he said. "There is no other place like it in the world."
Wave Hub's backers say the installation will also generate up to 20 megawatts of energy, enough to power 7,500 homes, or 3 percent of Cornwall's domestic energy needs.
"Allowing the power utilities to steal 20 megawatts out of the wave energy of the north coast of Cornwall is a major loss of wave power," said John Baxendale, an engineer by profession and a surfer for over 40 years.
He has sent a petition with over 600 signatures to government, urging further consultation with surfers.
Initial reports suggest wave heights could be cut by up to 11 percent in the worst affected area, Chapelporth, a renowned surfing beach backed by rugged granite cliffs and the ruins of discarded tin mines.
HEAD OF STEAM
Surfing chatrooms -- usually home to mellow banter about surfboard designs and camper vans -- have now sprung to life with vigorous debate on energy security, carbon offsetting and Britain's nuclear future.
One thread on http://www.a1surf.com is entitled "The Global Warming Scam -- Fact or Fiction?".
But some surfers find the whole debate shameful, especially where it has been reported in local media.
"Such stories make us all look selfish, and the whole sport appears to be self-obsessed and trite," said Alex Dick-Read, editor of Surfer's Path magazine.
Project manager Harrington said shipping companies and fishermen have posed the most serious objections, but added: "Objections from surfers have developed something of a head of steam."
Many of Cornwall's surfers have plenty at stake, having moved to the rain-lashed peninsula to chase the giant swells that surge out of the Atlantic.
"Imagine the uproar if golf courses were required to close two holes each in order to accommodate wind farms!" said Baxendale. "Surfers in favour of the Wave Hub does sound like turkeys voting for Christmas."
Harrington says a report out this week by oceanographer Kerry Black could add clarity to the debate, by offering a second opinion on the Wave Hub's impact on surfing waves. Baxendale, one of the more influential objectors, says he will stand by that report's findings.
"Kerry is of such standing that we feel bound to believe his conclusions," he said.
Alex Dick-Read at Surfers Path hopes that when the dust settles, the British surfing subculture has not damaged its own image too badly.
"There'd be no need for a Wave Hub if we harnessed the energy from this enormous storm in a teacup," he added.