Severn Barrage back on the agenda

The Engineer

The news that the government is once again considering proposals to build a hydroelectric barrage across the Severn estuary is a welcome, although not entirely unsurprising development. The project seems to rear its head as predictably as the tides that this monumental piece of engineering would exploit.

The latest proposal put forward by the Corlan Hafren group (a consortium including Halcrow, Arup, Motto MacDonald and Marks Barfield) would see an 11 mile long barrage spanning the Severn estuary between Lavernock Point in South Wales and Brean Down in Somerset.

The scheme – an evolution of a design that was first developed by the Severn Tidal Power Group back in the late 1980s –  would, according to its proponents – exploit the huge 14 metre tidal range of the Severn Estuary to generate upto 5 per cent of the UK’s current electricity requirements.

It’s a compelling claim. But why should a project that’s had as many false dawns as the channel tunnel finally see the light of day?

As recently as 2010, former energy secretary Chris Huhne rejected plans to build a publicly-funded barrage on cost grounds. The famously pro-renewables minister said the taxpayer could not afford to finance the £30 bn scheme.

However, MP Peter Hain, who quit government last year to champion the project, has claimed that the barrage could now be built without a penny of public money. Indeed according to reports in The Guardian and on the BBC, much of the funding for the project would come from investors in Qatar and Kuwait.

Of course cost, though perhaps the biggest hurdle to getting the barrage built, is not the only obstacle. Environmental groups remain concerned about its impact on sensitive wetland habitats, whilst, as reported in our 2006 feature on the subject, there are also concerns that a barrage could lead to the silting-up of valuable shipping channels.  What’s more, there are harder to define “public acceptance” issues, which voters on our latest poll appear to think will provide a significant challenge for champions of the project.

But with confidence apparently growing that overseas investors will foot the bill for the barrage these are challenges that the engineers behind the latest proposals should be able to find a solution to.

We’re not going to hold our breath – the Severn Barrage was, after all, first proposed over 150 years ago. But the scheme may now be closer than its ever been to fruition and the way in which the government responds to this gathering momentum will say much about its stated commitment to low carbon energy.