New Severn Barrage would exploit two-way tides

Peter Hain makes the case for the biggest Welsh investment project in more than a generation

As by far the most exciting green investment project before Wales, the Severn Barrage would have a bigger and more positive impact on the economy than anything else for the foreseeable future. But that is not the only case for it. It is the biggest renewable energy project in Europe, the equivalent of around three nuclear power stations or over 3,000 wind turbines. It will make a greater contribution to tackling climate change than any other green energy project.

Regenerating Wales 

This is the third of a new series outlining the potential impact major investment projects can have on the Welsh economy. Tomorrow we look at a major new £250 million sports project for the Heads of the Valleys.

Alternative schemes for the Severn such as reefs and lagoons offer only a fraction of the power. No consortium has proposed building them and they would have other serious disadvantages, including navigational problems for shipping.

The UK has set a target to cut harmful emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 mainly by investing in renewable energy – a very ambitious objective dependent upon much more renewable energy. And there is no bolder commitment to delivering a greener Wales and a greener Britain than the Severn barrage.

With the second largest tidal range in the world in the Severn estuary, the Cardiff-Weston barrage would generate fully 5 per cent of the UK’s electricity (16.5 terawatt hours a year) of clean, low carbon, predictable and therefore base load energy. Unlike any previous Barrage consortium, Welsh-based Hafren Power will finance it entirely by private investment with no Treasury grant required.

It will cost at least £25 billion to build and will be financed by Sovereign Wealth Funds and other infrastructure investors, providing the UK with a huge private-sector stimulus during a time of a chronic lack of private and public investment. This will be a massive boost to the economies of south Wales and south-west England, with 80 per cent of the investment being spent in the UK. In contrast, according to the UK Energy Research Centre, offshore wind imports 80 per cent of its equipment and services from abroad and only spends 20 per cent in the UK.

Construction of the Barrage will take nine years and employ at least 20,000 workers. Hafren Power plans to set up skills centres to train local workers – creating a highly skilled, well-paid jobs legacy. It is estimated that construction and manufacturing will indirectly bring about another 30,000 jobs. Given the scale of the project it is possible that this figure could be higher and the jobs longer-lasting than expected.

The Port Talbot area will receive a massive investment and jobs injection because the gigantic concrete structures (caissons) will be built and assembled and then floated out from its deep-water casting yard. The other benefit is a legacy of the largest deep water port in north west Europe which would be ideal for the new generation of container ships – ULCs, Ultra Large Container ships – which otherwise would have to find a port outside Britain.

However, the Barrage will not affect existing shipping to other south Wales ports, nor Bristol Port, because special locks would enable current size ships to pass through without charge. On the contrary – because of the new benign sea environment in the giant ‘lake’ behind the barrage – there will be enormous new opportunities for marine leisure and commercial activity currently rendered impossible by the Severn’s fearsome current.

There are also plans for the Barrage’s 1,026 turbines to be manufactured at a new factory at Port Talbot docks. And because these turbines have been specifically designed to be as fish-friendly as possible, they could be exported globally for a new generation of tidal power right across the world – another skilled jobs legacy.

The tidal manufacture industry is in its infancy. The Severn Barrage has the opportunity to lead in design, manufacture and research and export the industry across the world, with the world’s second largest tidal regime being harnessed to produce 5 per cent of the UK electricity needs as the working example. Other countries have seized the opportunity in developing renewables, for example Germany which leads in wind turbine design and manufacture.

Hafren Power is also prioritising research to limit the environmental impact of the proposal. They are engaging with wildlife groups to minimise the impact of the Barrage on fish and bird life. There will be substantial funding for up to 50 square kilometres of habitat compensation and displacement, to ensure a legacy of sustainability for the Severn. I would not have backed the project had these key ecological issues not been integral to its mission.

Research suggests some aspects of the project could actually help to reinvigorate the ecology and wildlife that co-exist around the Severn where, for example, numbers of the iconic Dunlin wading bird have declined drastically over the last decade because of global warming.

The environmental argument is not between the status quo and the scenario post-Barrage. The status quo is changing all the time, and will do so because of global warming anyway – and for the worse. The real issue is how the new environment could be made most beneficial.

Previous Barrage schemes attracted big criticisms because they trapped the water at high levels and released it at low tide in a powerful surge. But Hafren have adopted an entirely different system. Using Low-Head turbine technology and generating on both the ebb and the flow, it emulates the Severn’s natural tidal pattern. This allows for integration into the local ecology, making it permeable to fish and invertebrates, and minimising its effects on the Estuary, its banks and tributary rivers.

The Barrage will also act as a flood protection barrier, without which 90,000 properties and 500 square kilometres of floodplains around the Severn are at risk from global warming induced rising sea levels, saving the nation billions in flood damage and defence costs.

The Coastal Habitat Management Plan forecasts a loss in coastal habitat of around 10 to 20 per cent in the next one hundred years and in the Severn Estuary the Cardiff Weston Barrage would be invaluable in avoiding this. The ecology of the Severn is highly important to Britain. The various species of bird and benthic (sea bottom) habitat availability around the Severn Estuary are part of the rich tapestry of Britain’s heritage. Hafren Power recognises this and is putting a large percentage of its private investment into detailed academic research, ensuring a greater understanding of the impact and effect the Barrage will have on the Severn. The proposal will be adjusted and modified on the basis of that research, and angling and birdlife groups have been invited to assess this research.

It is encouraging that there was broad support in the recent debate in the Assembly and Carwyn Jones’ backing in principle when replying to the debate was welcome.  He was right to say that the Welsh Government should be involved in the consultations even if all the consents will be delivered by the Westminster Parliament through a ‘hybrid’ Bill.

However, after recent meetings with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Energy at which we have made a strong case, the ball is very much in the Westminster Government’s court.  The Barrage cannot proceed without Government backing in principle which is needed for the private investors to commit.  Time will have to be made in Parliament by Government business managers to enable the necessary Private Bill to go through, providing planning consent. And, finally, an electricity contract will have to be negotiated containing the usual price support mechanism for all renewable energy projects over 30 years – after which it will generate freely for at least a further 90 years.

Uniquely, however, for a renewable energy project of any kind, it costs the public almost nothing. Construction is 100 per cent privately financed and the cost of price support is offset by flooding cost savings of nearly half-a-billion pounds a year, according to Government estimates. It will reduce overall consumer electricity bills by 3.5 per cent a year on average over its life.  So it would be the cheapest electricity source in the UK, 50-75 per cent cheaper than coal, gas, wind or nuclear for over 100 years.

One other potential benefit – though not one which is part of Hafren Power’s plans – is an exciting option for road and rail link over the top of the Barrage between Wales and south west England, with both economic regeneration opportunities, and an alternative to the Severn Tunnel for inter-city trains. If the relevant authorities wished to pursue this, the Barrage could easily allow for both road and rail links on top. But Hafren Power is rightly focusing exclusively upon delivering the Barrage – that is more than sufficient a task on its own.

All in all – and with the necessary wildlife safeguards being integral to the design – the Barrage should be a no brainer.

Peter Hain is MP for Neath was Secretary of State for Wales and a Labour Government Minister for 12 years.

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