How Peter Hain contradicts himself

Gareth Clubb says a Severn barrage could become one of the most expensive renewable energy schemes in history


Writing on this site a few weeks ago (here) Peter Hain extolled the supposed virtues of a Cardiff to Weston barrage across the Severn. The former Secretary of State for Wales and his colleagues at Hafren Power are of course at an advantage in describing the new proposal. That’s because no-one else has seen it. The barrage proposal – described as ‘inchohate’ by the developers (that is to say, not fully formed) – has never seen the light of day. That means its proponents get bucketloads of free media coverage while those of us who have concerns are left to hypothesise.

Meanwhile, at the Welsh Affairs Select Committee a couple of weeks ago I presented evidence that contradicts many of Hafren Power’s claims. To my surprise, Peter Hain did the same the following day at the Energy and Climate Change Committee. It seemed like a peculiar strategy for the project’s principal cheerleader to dismantle his own side’s viewpoint so skilfully.

Peter Hain said that it would “clearly be necessary” to un-designate the Natura 2000 habitat in order to proceed with the project. This is something that has never happened before, and would need to be agreed by the European Commission. Let’s remember that Pembroke power station – itself the centre of a European Commission infringement procedure as a result of a Friends of the Earth Cymru complaint – related to one Special Area of Conservation. The Severn barrage would impact on 19 Special Areas of Conservation, 5 Special Protection Areas and 5 Ramsar sites. Suffice to say that un-designation would be contentious. Compensatory habitat would be of a scale 30-60 times greater than any previous scheme in the UK.

But let’s look at some of the claims of Hafren Power. Peter Hain said:

“It will generate fully 5 per cent of the UK’s electricity needs, that is… the equivalent of three or four nuclear reactors and over 3,000 wind turbines. There’s nothing like it on the horizon for renewable energy generation”.

The most authoritative anaylsis yet of the costs of generating electricity from solar power indicate that we’ll reach grid parity by 2016 (also for onshore wind). So in three years’ time, it will be cheaper for households to generate their own electricity on rooftops than it will to buy it from the grid. That’s a game-changer. We’ve seen Germany’s solar production go from less than 1 per cent of electricity in 2008 to 5 per cent in 2012 – and that’s in a situation where it has yet to reach grid parity. Given that Hafren Power’s contraption won’t be powering a single light bulb until 2025, that it expects subsidies for 25 years, and that in contrast to nuclear, renewable technologies are getting cheaper as time goes by, I’d say that both solar and wind are very much on the horizon. In just four years, Germany is producing more electricity from solar than Hafren Power’s barrage will ever do. What’s more, the jobs in solar are high quality and right across Germany, not in a few sectors in one small geographical area.

Ah yes, jobs. We’re told that there will be 20,000 jobs in construction. The Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Welsh Government have looked into this issue. Their analysis? A best guess that we’d end up with 120 net jobs provided in Wales and south-west England. At around £283 million per job, it would be the most expensive job creation scheme in history. We’re also told that 500km2 would be protected from flooding, when a previous government-commissioned study indicated that flooding problems would be worsened for 370km2 – and 45,000 residential properties – as a result of a barrage.

Friends of the Earth Cymru have long promoted tidal lagoons as part of a package of measures to make decent contributions to renewable energy generation in the Severn estuary. A 400 MW lagoon proposal in Swansea Bay is in the pre-application stage, while another one offshore at Aberthaw has also been suggested. What’s more, tidal lagoons can be replicated – with great learning and export potential – along the north Wales coast, as suggested by Sir John Houghton. Alongside tidal stream generation and the Atlantic Array wind development, the Severn will soon be generating plenty of electricity for Wales.

The siren call of the Severn barrage, a 10-mile concrete wall in the Severn estuary producing incredibly expensive electricity, destroying priceless habitats, making fish populations extinct and increasing flood risk in Wales. That’s the side of the story that Hafren Power don’t like to mention. And that’s why the Severn barrage will remain science fiction now and forever.

Gareth Clubb is Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru