Tidal power for Wales – within our reach, let’s grasp it

Now a positive Hendry review has been published, let’s get on with making tidal lagoons happen in Wales, argues Hywel Lloyd.

The Hendry report is a powerful statement on the strategic case for tidal lagoons as a part of the energy supply mix for the UK.  With the case made, he recommends swift movement towards delivering the pilot project, the proposed Swansea Bay Lagoon.

It is clear from Hendry’s report, and personal experience, that many in the Swansea Bay area see it as a game changing opportunity, bringing jobs and potentially longer term economic opportunity, as well as providing a new iconic landmark on the coast (and perhaps a more purposeful one that some cities have gone for!) that will place Swansea in people’s minds across the globe.

Opportunity beckons, yet to paraphrase Churchill, yesterday only saw the ‘end of the beginning’ in the journey to successfully realising tidal energy.  Politicians and public bodies, NGOs and business all have to step up to their own challenges to deliver this pilot in good time.  

And time is not particularly on our side, whether you look at the global challenge of climate change, and the world passing 400 ppm of CO2 last year, or our delivery against ambitions we’ve had before, for example DECC’s landmark 2050 pathways work (~ 2009) had four pathways to tidal, and we are currently nowhere near even the exploratory pathway that suggested initial schemes in place by 2020.

While some NGOs will rightly rejoice at the Hendry conclusions, others will rightly have issues to be addressed, not least on the impacts on the natural world.  In some respects the need for renewable energy is all about reducing our impacts on the natural world, yet each site of a development will have impacts.  Can we work through the trade offs and the counterfactuals to deliver low impact, high benefit renewables development such as the pilot lagoon? If we don’t, how much effect that will have on fish stocks and their response to ocean warming or bird migration as the timing of the seasons change?  At some level Hendry is saying we must proceed, at least this once, to physically examine the impacts and see how nature adapts.

For businesses, particularly those involved in the build and ownership of the pilot there is an ownership challenge.  As a whole the project is perhaps too big to be developed and owned by local and not so local communities, yet local ownership, and perhaps a stake in the development held by the authorities of the city region and the Welsh Government will be key to ensuring the project avoids being yet another energy project that extracts value from Wales.  Local ownerships of all of these forms will help maximise the economic benefits the lagoon can bring.

If the Welsh Government can own an airport, and many local authorities across the UK can own energy assets, the opportunity of some ownership and equity should be something both parties can explore with confidence.  Their challenges are perhaps more to do with a sense of perspective and balance.  For the authorities of the SBCR it will be a challenge to avoid putting every egg into a lagoon shaped basket – but let’s remember the city region reaches all the way to St Davids, and electricity and lagoon building are only a part of the future of the wider city region economy.

For the Welsh Government the potential for a ‘fleet’ of mostly Welsh lagoons should mean the pilot is more of a priority than say Wylfa Newydd, given the greater degree of influence and benefit Welsh Ministers can oversee for Wales, compared to a UK led nuclear programme; yet other energy measures, not least community energy and energy efficiency, will continue to need support and encouragement from the Welsh Government to deliver their benefits of lower net demand, greater self sufficiency and local ownership in parallel to the pilot lagoon rather than buried under it.

Can each and every party meet their challenge?  In the end it comes down to the story we all want to tell – did we take the opportunity to enhance the sustainability and self sufficiency of Wales and the Welsh people or did we let an opportunity slip through our fingers?

Hywel Lloyd is the Founder for Facilitating the Future. He is also a member of the Steering Committee of the IWA Re-Energising Wales project. He writes in a personal capacity.

4 thoughts on “Tidal power for Wales – within our reach, let’s grasp it

  1. When the dust settles and the next media cycle begins people may start to realise that the Hendry review said little unexpected, and hasn’t really moved the project any further ahead than it was under the last UK Government. Sure lagoons have the potential to make a strategic difference to our energy mix, but as this article highlights the financial and environmental costs have the potential to be hugely damaging.

    Given this the Swansea project will never be built unless we get an agreement on the strike price from UK Government and planning/environmental concerns from the Welsh side of the Channel. As far as can be seen progress on both of these has been at a snails pace as the developers develop their thinking.

    So on strike price this leaves us with what figure is low enough for the taxpayer, but high enough for the project to be profitable. Where the agreement will end up is anyone’s guess, however, in the current climate it would not be unbelievable for the UK Government to propose something between £75-£90/MW for Swansea and then potentially Zero for any future project once the technology has been proven. Would that still be appealing to developers/investors? Maybe, maybe not, it’s a long way from the near £160/MW muted a few years back.

    Then you have the environmental impact. It’s easy for people to be nervous about this as there are so many unknowns, and unless it’s built there won’t be an evidence base – remember this is project that has never been done before, using technology which still doesn’t exist in a sensitive location about which we know little. Maybe if less had been promised in the early years the situation would be better now?

    Either way, the question we are left with is what happens if the Swansea project is built and the impact on habitats etc is as bad as many seem to fear? Would it be turned off? Dismantled even? That seems unlikely. After all, nobody is talking about dismantling Pembroke Power Station after all that unpleasantness. Worst case is that we would be left with a taxpayer funded line of concrete & under performing turbines in a silted up Swansea Bay devoid of migratory fish & bird life.

    The other question is how long would Swansea have to be operational to provide a proof of concept? From a tech perspective the performance of the new turbines will be known fairly quickly. But these environmental concerns may take years to fully assess. There would also have to be an extensive period of baseline work done before it’s built in order for change to be established. All of which makes it seem like it would be hard to get additional lagoons built for well over a decade from now, even if the Swansea project got the OK this morning.

    When you strip away the spin it all seems rather complex. Best not rush into anything.

  2. I believe the Welsh Government should buy a stake in tidal lagoon energy. They should also do all they can to fast-track the Welsh lagoons by setting up a specific team to manage a programme of development. Even if they do not have power over them due to their output capacity, they do have considerable sway through NRW, local planning issues, collating business interests, apprentices, linking Educational establishments etc.

    This is a one off opportunity for Wales to lead the global field in tidal energy, as we once did in tin, coal, iron, copper & slate. It will create a greater confidence in our ability to do anything we want, if we commit ourselves to it.

    It’s time to get very excited about what Wales as a nation can deliver globally, if we put our minds to it.

  3. What proportion of the south facing roofs in Wales could be fitted with solar panels for £1.3 billion? And how much electricity would that generate compared with the lagoon’s output? What would be the energy saving if we spent £1.3 billion on insulating and triple-glazing Welsh homes and offices? There are many small hydro-electric schemes proposed for our rivers and the possibility exists of retro-fitting turbines to many of our reservoirs and even the Cardiff Bay barrage. What might all that cost and how much electricity would it produce? it would be useful to have those estimates to put the Swansea lagoon project into perspective. On the face of it, it costs a lot of money for what seems a relatively small output of electricity.

    The Hendry Review goes along with guaranteeing the price for the lagoon’s output for 60 years – justified because the lagoon will last a long time – over 100 years. We have no idea, however, what technical advances will occur over the next 60 years or what energy prices will be. It might have looked a good deal to sign a 60 year contract to get horse feed at a fixed price in 1890, before Mr Benz made the first motor car. You would have ended up with a lot of expensive hay on your hands. Twenty-year price guarantees are one thing; sixty year guarantees are an inconceivable hostage to fortune.

    The main argument advanced for the Swansea lagoon is that it would be a pilot for a series of lagoons that would each be larger and more economic. I don’t understand that argument. The technology behind lagoons is not new and hardly needs proving. The problems of construction are specific to each site. So what’s the point of a pilot? Why not just build one of the larger, more economic lagoons?

    The Swansea lagoon may be a good idea though the numbers don’t look promising. Yet, there is an air of desperation in Wales at the moment where people get very excited about marginal projects like the Swansea lagoon or even sub-marginal clunkers like the Circuit of Wales. I am all for ambition – we haven’t generally shown enough – but let’s keep our heads and weigh things up against alternatives.

  4. Having designed and built the first ‘Tidal Stream Turbine’ over 25 years ago (featured on Tomorrows World) and the ‘Tidal REEF’ for the Severn Estuary, I wonder why nobody is prepared to listen to the environmental arguments rather than use ten-second ‘sound bites’ and dramatic headlines.

    Tidal Lagoons, as proposed for Swansea Bay use the same technology as the much criticised ‘Cardiff-Weston Barrage’ proposal. The danger for fish stocks and wading bird habitat remains almost the same, as fish will pass through the turbines and water behind the structure is maintained at a higher level. The main reason behind the ‘Severn Tidal REEF Proposal’ is that you start your design from the ‘environmental constraints’ and not ‘tack them on as an afterthought’.

    The REEF concept can equally well be applied to a ‘Tidal Lagoon’ as to a ‘Tidal Barrage’ but involves many more slower running simpler turbines. A cynic might question why certain large engineering interests (in the news today for corruption) were so keen to try and discredit of hijack a concept that is based on much higher job creation in UK shipyards building ‘low-tech’ turbines, than keeping the work in the hands of a few ‘high-tech’ multi-nationals.

    Nobody has yet come up with any reason that the REEF concept isn’t the best solution for capturing tidal energy with the minimum of environmental damage, they simply say that it isn’t proven technology so we shouldn’t try it. Is the UK so stuck in it’s ways that it is only what the financial institutions and large companies want, that goes, or is there still a place of innovation from the small guys?

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