Making Britain a real low-carbon leader

I am now doing some work for Tidal Lagoon Power on their Swansea project. This is the most exciting project that I have been involved in for many years.

While running Greenpeace UK, I established a partnership with RWE npower to support their construction of the Britain’s first major offshore wind farm. Sixty Mw North Hoyle opened in 2003.  Before that, the only UK offshore wind power was from two 2Mw turbines off Northumberland. In 2008, Britain overtook Denmark to become the country with the largest installed offshore wind capacity in the world. By then I had moved from Greenpeace to npower. I led the public affairs work to get planning permission for the Gwynt y Mor (Welsh for ‘wind of the sea’) wind farm (RWE: Gwynt y Môr). Gwynt y Mor is now being built, and due to start generating this year. It will be 576Mw, almost ten times the size of North Hoyle – though not quite as large as the 630 London Array (a project for which I sadly can’t claim any credit). RWE npower now has planning permission to build a 900Mw wind farm in the North Sea, 20 miles off Lincolnshire (RWE: Triton Knoll).

So the UK has made significant progress in harnessing offshore wind over the last decade. But we weren’t the world leaders – the Danes got there first. With tidal lagoons, the UK has the opportunity to be a genuine global leader in low-carbon technology. British politicians are very good at talking the climate talk: Tony Blair excelled in this, and David Cameron was good too, at least before becoming prime minister. But the climate walk has been more of a shuffle. The UK gets a lower proportion of its electricity from renewables than any other member state except Malta and Luxembourg. The wind turbines that are put up here are imported from Denmark, Germany or China. We should seize the opportunity to build the world’s first tidal lagoon, and then build an industrial supply chain around lagoons. Once it’s been demonstrated, lagoon technology could be exported to France, Canada, India, China and other countries. The industrial policy rationale is as strong as the climate rationale.

What impact do tidal lagoons have on wildlife? I don’t know, and nor does anyone else, because there isn’t a tidal lagoon. So the obvious step to take is to build one, to gather evidence. The Sustainable Development Commission published a good report on tidal energy in 2007 (see Sustainable Development Commission: Turning the Tide). This assesses the large impacts of a Severn barrage on fish, birds and habitats. On lagoons, the report points out that solid evidence on biodiversity impact will only be available once a lagoon is built, so encourages the UK government to get one built. Seven years later, the government finally has a chance to follow this sensible advice. Tidal Lagoon Power have submitted a planning application for a 320Mw lagoon in Swansea Bay. At different times the turbines in the lagoon would generate different quantities of electricity. Overall the Swansea lagoon would generate a similar amount of electricity to a 140Mw offshore wind farm. That’s smaller than existing and planned offshore wind projects. But Swansea is a pilot – and the pilot for offshore wind was just 4Mw. Anyway, it’s not an either/or. We need tidal power and wind power (plus energy efficiency, other renewables, CCS and nuclear). Tidal power has the advantage, as part of this mix, of being entirely predictable.

One of the UK’s leading wildlife experts, Mark Avery, wrote on his blog on 15 April that those who care about biodiversity should support the Swansea Bay project. He called the post “Time to be in favour of something …”. He is not calling for the conservation movement to write a blank cheque to tidal lagoon technology: each proposal should, he says, be assessed on merit. This is sensible, and also necessary under EU law (which is not always the same thing…). Tidal Lagoon Power has carried out an extensive Environmental Impact Assessment, running to 4,000 pages. As Mark says, Swansea bay is a sensible place to perform the first pilot project, because there are no obvious biodiversity disadvantages to outweigh the clean energy advantages. Future proposals will be considered on merit, by conservationists and by the planning process. However, part of this consideration must be the fact that one ‘experiment’ will not provide enough evidence to draw definitive conclusions about the environmental impact of tidal lagoons. More projects will be necessary before that can be done.

In addition to the Environmental Impact Assessment, the company has carried out lots of community consultation. The wind industry hasn’t always been very good at this, so it appears that appropriate lessons have been learnt. Tidal Lagoon Power got a high level of responses to their consultation letters, and 86% of Swansea residents who responded supported the proposal.

In summary, Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon is a project which:

  • would generate a significant quantity of clean electricity
  • would make the UK a world leader in a new and promising technology
  • would open up significant export opportunities
  • has the support of leading conservationists, and
  • is a project which local residents do want in their back yard.

Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, has to make the final decision. He should follow due process, respect his quasi-judicial role, listen respectfully to all representations. And then, before the general election, give planning consent.

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