Wales is sometimes referred to as the ‘World’s first industrial nation’. But equally aptly it might be called the ‘World’s first energy nation’. Probably few other countries on earth have seen their modern history and everyday community lives shaped as much by the unceasing need for energy to power and sustain our existence. And it continues today….
Just over a century ago, Wales powered the world. In 1913, with over 600 deep mines and more than 250,000 men employed underground, the South Wales valleys produced nearly a third of all the World’s coal exports. As a result, Cardiff cemented its city status, bequeathed in 1905, becoming the biggest coal exporting port in the world where the World’s first-ever million pound business deal had been sealed in 1901.
The ensuing social changes during and after that time were huge; in the previously rural valleys, once isolated farms and hamlets were now engulfed by haphazard, helter-skelter rows of terraces housing the thousands who poured in to work in the pits springing up along the valley bottoms. In the docks of Cardiff, the coal trade triggered a flood of people from all corners of the globe who settled in what became known as Tiger Bay.
But already new energy transitions were in motion. Along the coast at Llandarcy, the UK’s first large-scale oil refinery was opened in 1922, complete with its own self-contained workers’ village, whilst the Queen’s Dock was specially built at Swansea to handle the imported oil.
The deep mines have gone with new wind farms now towering over some of the valleys below; in Cardiff Bay, where coal was once king, the new Trident Park Facility generating energy from waste is close to completion; the oil plants at Baglan Bay and Llandarcy have closed rendering obsolete the Queen’s Dock soon to be encompassed by the world’s first, man-made, energy-generating lagoon. Meanwhile, communities across Wales are seeking to install their own energy generating projects some inspired by the Centre for Alternative Technology.
Where Wales once led in carbonising the world, unwittingly in the vanguard of a revolution that now threatens human existence as we know it through climate change, the next energy revolution is already underway as we seek to meet the ambitious decarbonisation targets agreed by all parties and set down by the UK Government’s Climate Change Act.
How are communities facing this new energy future? What has been our relationship with energy here in Wales, how have we adjusted to or shaped the transitions caused by our changing energy needs? What does the future hold and what can we learn about the future from our past relationships with energy? How will we adapt to the new changes and challenges we undoubtedly face?
The ‘Stories of Change’ project aims to revive and reinvigorate our conversations about energy by looking in a fresh way at its past, present and future. In particular we shall be working with selected communities in Wales, in conjunction with our creative partners, as we seek to encourage and provoke a more imaginative approach to our current and future energy choices, to unearth new accounts of our relationships with energy, and how this might inform and shape future energy transitions.
Image shows the cover of the 1953 brochure for Llandarcy Refinery by the late Laurence Fish: artist and illustrator – taken from Phil Beard’s blog at: