Take me to the river

First mooted in the 1850s and revived pretty much every decade since, the idea of harnessing the power behind the world’s second largest tidal range is a seductive one.

Of all the renewable energy projects around the UK, the Severn Barrage has probably the longest history. First mooted in the 1850s and revived pretty much every decade since, the idea of harnessing the power behind the world’s second largest tidal range (15m between low and high water) is a seductive one. Now, with the idea of a variety of energy sources firmly in the policy mainstream, it seems that it might finally go ahead.

It would be good to be able to say it will definitely go ahead, but we can’t. With typical British diffidence, the Department of Energy and Climate Change has announced that it has narrowed down its options for a Severn Barrage from a list of 10 down to five, for a final decision at some unspecified point next year.

At least, we think that’s what they’ve announced. It’s difficult to be sure. Secretary of state Ed Miliband also said he ‘had not lost sight’ of some of the other options in the list of 10, and would consider their progress before a final decision.

So that’s perfectly clear, isn’t it? We definitely have five options. Or possibly we still have 10. Some number between five and 10, anyway. And the choice will definitely be between five, unless one of the others suddenly looks more attractive. What a great way to make the engineers working on the various projects feel sure they aren’t wasting their time.

The five shortlisted projects — if it can be called a shortlist — are the 10-mile-long Brean Down to Lavernock Point barrage, which will generate as much electricity as eight power stations; two options for smaller barrages further upstream, which would generate around a megawatt each; and two options for tidal lagoons, one near Weston-super-Mare and one near the Severn Bridges, which would generate 1.36GW. The large barrage is based on well-known, well-researched plans, which date back to the early 1970s; it would cost some £14bn, and has been criticised by environmental and wildlife campaigners, concerned that damming the estuary would harm wetlands and reduce bird and fish life. These campaigners would prefer the lagoon options, which fill as the tide rises, then empty through turbines as it falls, generating electricity as the water runs away.

Other tidal turbine schemes are included in the options of which Miliband has not ‘lost sight’, including a 12-mile artificial reef incorporating floating turbines. Probably the most ambitious proposal, this uses developed but unproven technology, unlike the Brean-Lavernock scheme.

What we’re wondering is, why bother with this shortlist announcement at all? Over the Atlantic, President Obama is still sniffing the fresh paint and new carpet in the Oval Office and is already sounding more serious and businesslike about non-fossil fuel energy than we are; and the UK has better tidal resources than the US. All Miliband’s announcement achieves is making it sound like the government is still dithering. If the turbine options are still under consideration, why leave them out of the shortlist? Surely that means the shortlist is completely bogus? Keep on like this, and the turbine researchers will see their funding start to ebb away like the falling tide; and some other, better financed technology will take its place. And that’ll be another technology niche that the UK could have dominated, but somehow missed.

We’re constantly reporting that the state of the UK’s energy generation is in serious trouble. We report it because that’s what we’re told, by a variety of serious people who know what they’re talking about. Here’s a chance to fill a big part of that gap, while also ensuring that engineers will have a major, well-defined, long-term project to work on through the lean months of recession. And instead, the government makes a maddeningly vague announcement that just points up its unwillingness to make a decision. What a daft idea. Take a deep breath, Ed, and make your mind up. Risk the future of the bird life on a sure thing, or put your faith in technology development. But don’t mess people around. Let’s just have a decision. As the great Al Green said in the song quoted above, put your feet on the ground.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor