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.

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