Ticking Time Bomb

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Britains saviour could be the waves PDF Print E-mail
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You could call it lunar power, and certainly it’s long been eclipsed by the sun and wind for renewable energy. Yet, after nearly 90 years of frustration, the time of tide – of which Britain has the greatest resources of any country on earth – might finally be about to arrive, and by an unexpected route.

A House of Commons select committee will produce yet another report on proposals for a tidal barrage across the Severn estuary that could generate 5 per cent of the country’s electricity. But it’s just possible that this much-touted solution – which has been unsuccessfully revived more than a dozen times since first proposed in 1925 – will be pipped to the post by a little-publicised scheme for a chain of lagoons around the estuary which, its promoters say, will produce more energy at about half the cost.

Overwhelmingly powered by the moon, tides rise and fall with metronomic predictability – a rare and invaluable attribute for a renewable source. The Severn has the second greatest tidal range in the world, after Canada’s Bay of Fundy, as Atlantic sea water accelerates on meeting the continental shelf, pushing a huge volume into a relatively shallow pool.

Other exceptional sites stud our coasts – including Liverpool and Morecambe Bays, the Solway Firth and the Wash – most of them conveniently close to towns and cities that can use the power. Indeed, the UK has half the tidal power resources of the whole of Europe.

The Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee will assess the latest barrage scheme, an 11-mile dam, containing 1,026 underwater turbines, stretching from Lavernock Point, near Cardiff, to Brean, near Weston-super-Mare. It is designed to have the capacity of more than three nuclear power stations, or more than 3,000 wind turbines, and to save the emission of 7.1 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.

But it is expensive, at £25 billion and, at best, would not be fully functioning until 2025. The Port of Bristol fears ruin, because it will obstruct ships and make the water shallower. It will disrupt migration routes to a quarter of Britain’s salmon habitats – says the RSPB – and could seriously affect 96 internationally protected sites for birds, largely by altering water levels. Indeed, it would have to get round an EU directive, a lengthy process even if it succeeded.

Its promoters – who include the former Labour minister Peter Hain – say that it is nevertheless the only way “to harness the full power of the Severn”. Mark Shorrock begs to differ. A 43‑year-old entrepreneur – who worked in films before turning to building “out of sight” wind farms and solar installations in Britain and Spain – he has invested £2 million of his own money in investigating tidal lagoons and will apply for planning permission for the first of its kind in the world, in Swansea Bay this autumn.

Plans for lagoons have been kicking around for years, but Shorrock applied a businessman’s rigour, spending the past two years “throwing darts at the project and seeing if we can kill it”. Failing to do so, he teamed up with major companies such as Atkins, Costain, marine engineers Van Oord and turbine makers Alstom and Voith, and says he can produce more power than the barrage from a chain of six lagoons round the estuary for a comparatively modest £13.5 billion.

He also reckons that he could get half of them going in the Severn, and add two at Fleetwood and Colwyn Bay, to exceed the barrage’s planned output by 2023, two years before its completion. In all, he says, lagoons could provide a quarter of Britain’s domestic power.

Enclosed by breakwaters, stretching like giant harbour walls out from the coast, they come with turbines to generate power as the tides flow in and out.

Since they do not block the estuary, they do not harm ports, change migration routes or do much to affect bird habitat.

And whereas the barrage is a one-off project, building successive lagoons would make it possible to improve designs and lower costs – and the technology could be exported to similar sites around the world, creating a new British industry.

He will start selling 12,500 shares in his company to local people, and has already held 240 meetings with residents and interest groups around Swansea – a sharp contrast to the attitude of most of the wind industry. And he plans to turn the lagoons into popular centres for triathlons and water sports.

It is a longish shot, but ministers who believe that the barrage’s figures still “aren’t in the place they would need to be” are increasingly open to “affordable” lagoons. They could yet turn out to catch the tide.

 
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