Suzy Davies argues that the real value for money on Swansea tidal lagoon comes from being the first
It takes a certain level of courage to face global political shifts and then to determine to bring good from them. Sometimes, drawing out that good can be seismic in itself; an adoption of new thinking.
Just think of CERN in Geneva—an exceptional institution that brings unique opportunity to that part of the world. It began in 1954 when scientists from 12 countries left behind the shreds of the first half of the twentieth century and embarked on the first step in breaking through the limits of engineering, computing, and physics. In a tunnel 100m down and 27 km long, built for an earlier, costly project, the £2.8 billion Large Hadron Collider today is just part of a phenomenal but also expensive story that attracts investment from twice as many countries as it did 60 years ago.
I bet many Governments have questioned the cost of their contributions over the years, but do we now wonder: could there have been a cheaper way to discover the God particle? Might the development of the worldwide web have been achieved for less? Neither of these particular revolutions would have been foreseen in 1954.
What those Governments invested in, decade after decade, was the moving frontier—the acknowledgement that looking forward, thinking forward, spending forward, is the only hope of being ready for those genuinely global challenges. We’re already doing it to a degree with climate change, for example, or global water and food resources, the global economy, even—all inter-related, of course, but requiring a new outlook.
This is why I say we are on the threshold of something significant, although it may seem small, because tidal lagoons are, in part, a new answer to the question of future energy production.
Burning fossil fuels: that’s cheap, but cheap energy isn’t value for money when resources are finite, security of supply is uncertain, and the cost of pollution and poor health are taken into account. Wind energy: cheapish to produce, but often unpopular, unreliable, and needing expensive back-up—value for money? Nuclear: not especially expensive when the cost is set off over a lifetime. It’s reliable, but very high risk in terms of cost of security breach. Is that value for money? And lagoons: not especially expensive when the cost is set off over a lifetime, reliable technology, but not tested here —is that value for money?
Well, that’s what I am coming to, because, in terms of value for money, I’m asking: why on earth don’t we just do it and find out? See if Hendry is right?
Tidal lagoons are new thinking. Like CERN, this is a first. This is the beginning of a new industry, a global industry, with global implications, and it’s ours for the taking here in the UK. It’s not a question of ‘could’: it’s a question of ‘should’. The Hendry report is convincing on the part that tidal energy could play in meeting our needs, but that is just part of a much bigger story. It is convincing on the immediate local economic benefits that a no-regrets pathfinder lagoon would bring to my region: it’s transformative for Swansea as a city, he says. But it’s true for other parts of the UK as well. It’s convincing on the economic effect of other lagoons in the south east and north of Wales, and the fit with the UK industrial strategy.
But the real value for money comes from being the first—the UK being the undisputed global centre for lagoon expertise and manufacturing. How often does an opportunity like this come along? For 30p on our bills – literally less than peanuts – we can make all this talk of a knowledge economy mean something, by growing manufacturing for the world here in the UK.
It’s not just about the development phase. We could be leading the world in research and development, not just in a more efficient design but in materials, giving our steelworks new life and direction, in energy storage, in transmission methods, in flood protection. If we want a USP for our new trade deals, well here it is. Looking forward, thinking forward, spending forward—not on a lagoon, but on a new industrial future for Britain.
When CERN was set up, it didn’t foresee that its work would save lives through proton beam therapy, and that it would revolutionise data transfer. Its partners just knew that they were the first, and being first means driving change.
Four hundred years ago Hans Lippershey invented the Dutch perspective glass, a device for seeing things far away as if they were nearby. He took some existing technology, a glass lens, and did something moderately interesting with it. He didn’t treat it as a first; he didn’t see the potential of what he had. Galileo, on the other hand, wasn’t content to see things far away as if they were nearby. He took his version of the Dutch perspective glass and showed the Venetian Senate that his telescope gave them something unique: access to the stars.
It made him a rich man and made all of us richer, as the Hubble telescope, just like CERN, has helped us understand our universe.
In assessing the value for money of this pathfinder lagoon, I urge the UK Government to get back round the table with the developer, to consider again the value not just the price. Not to look at things far away as if they were nearby. We also need to look up and see the global opportunity for Wales and for Britain.
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.