We applaud the County's interest in exploring how tidal energy in the
Severn estuary could be harnessed - in view of the Government's energy
review it is important to know about all possibilities. We hope some of
the issues we raise below will be useful for your discussions. We
enclose key questions that need to be answered and statements by
Friends of the Earth Cymru and RSPB.
Cllr. Philip Booth
Stroud District Green party
Update: 18th November 2006: See report of Symposium on barrage.
Open letter to all Gloucestershire County Councillors re tidal energy possibilities:
The threat of catastrophic climate change is real and recognised by all the main parties: all the evidence points to the fact that our current targets are now inadequate and are in urgent need of revision. On top of that there is increasing evidence, not least from oil companies and geologists around the world, that we may have reached already reached or will soon reach what has been called 'Peak Oil' - the point when growing demand for oil outstrips falling supply. Oil won't run out as a significant energy resource until around 2050 but Peak Oil will have a profound effect on oil prices and a huge impact on businesses and communities in the South-west and indeed right across the world.
The Council is right to take action now. Below we look first at the proposals, then some of the key questions that need answering.
1. The Severn Barrage Proposal
Interest is growing in proposals to build the barrage between Brean Down, near Weston-super-Mare, and Lavernock Point, near Cardiff. A scheme to harness the world's second highest tidal flow and produce hydro-electric power is not new. It has been discussed on and off for the past 150 years and over £8 million has been spent on research. Climate change and the need for better energy security has put the scheme back on the agenda. It is estimated that the tidal energy in the estuary could provide up to seven per cent of the country's electricity and although the barrage would be many miles from Gloucestershire's borders, its effects on the county's wildlife and economy would be massive.
One virtue of the Barrage, widely mentioned is, in preventing inundation as sea levels rise; first storm surges, then later acting as the dykes in the Netherlands. Although we understand that energy production will very likely cease when the barrage takes up this role.
The biggest problem in forming a policy on the barrage is lack of access to the proposal. The Green party has not received replies to a letter or emails to the members of the Severn Power Tidal Group (SPTG), they do not have a website and we have not been able to find any the barrage proposal online. We have spoken to other researchers who have the same problem. We understand from people who have had contact with SPTG that there is disagreement within the group over different aspects of the proposal.
2. Other tidal energy possibilities
The lack of engagement of the SPTG contrasts strongly with the approach taken by the companies developing other methods for harnessing tidal power. The proponents of tidal lagoons and tidal streaming are open and communicative. Their detailed proposals and subsequent independent research and assessment is all easily available.
From this available information it would appear that tidal lagoons are by far the most cost efficient and least environmentally damaging of the proposals that are suitable for the Severn Estuary (Tidal Streaming technology would only be appropriate further off the coast). Developers of offshore tidal lagoons, say that a number of lagoon schemes in the Severn could generate as much if not more than a barrage at significantly lower environmental impact and cost.
One other aspect worth mentioning is that both barrage and lagoons can double as platforms for wind turbines and wave power designs.
The Green party remain open to the best proposal for harnessing energy from the Estuary, but are very concerned by the lack of useful information about the barrage proposal (i).
The proposal will have to answer various questions in order to be accepted as viable. They fall into three broad categories; technical, financial and environmental. We anticipate that research has been done to answer the technical questions and this will need to be made available and face close examination by independent experts. However from the current information about the proposals’ financial and environmental viability we have some important questions that raise some very serious concerns about a barrage.
Some key questions:
1. How will the £15 billion project be funded (ii)? Will public money be required? As recently as 2004 Lord Sainsbury stated: ‘The case for a Severn barrage has been re-examined fairly recently and the Government have reached the same conclusion: that the project is not attractive compared with other options.’ Has the barrage proposal received any indication from the Government that it may change its mind and support the scheme with public money?
2. If public money is not going to be given to build a barrage, can the supporters of the barrage provide any statements of intent to finance the project? Some indication of at least potential sources of funding really do need to be provided at this stage.
3. One of the justifiable criticisms of nuclear power is that it would take at least 10 years and would make no contribution to short term CO2 targets and minimal contribution to 2020 targets. Long build times also lock up investment capital which would otherwise be spent much sooner on alternative projects like offshore windfarms which could be operational within a few years. How soon could the barrage proposal be completed?
4. We have, from many a number of examples, concerns that private capital could hold the government to ransom and effectively demand tax payers money to finish, maintain and provide profit in running the structure. Who would own the barrage and run it?
5. If the £15 billion were to be found and the project completed what would be the required per Kilowatt hour cost of the electricity produced in order to make it a viable scheme? Some reports in the media have placed the cost at 6 – 7 pence p/KWhr, yet an independent finance specialist has estimated a cost of 20 –22 pence p/KWhr on an investment of £15bn. We request a firm estimate of the cost of the electricity backed up by independent research and assessment (iii).
6. The planning application for a barrage will be subject to several directives of the Habitats Regulations under U.K and E.U. law. The barrage proposal could not be permitted if the directives are adhered to. How do the supporters of the barrage proposal plan to overcome this legal protection of the Severn Estuary?
7. If, somehow, planning permission is obtained there will certainly be a legal challenge that will be vigorously pursued by a coalition of well funded NGOs. This legal challenge would be taken all the way to the European Court if necessary. Does the barrage proposal take account of the monetary cost and time delay that these legal challenges will cause?
8. The idea that the barrage could be some kind of flood protection device has been mentioned in some media articles recently. This seems to go against contemporary practice in flood defence that advises letting the water go into flood plains rather than channelling flood water along the coast to inundate another area. Can the supporters of the barrage offer any research into flooding in the Estuary that supports building a barrage?
9. Would the supporters of the barrage be willing to take part in a strategic comparative assessment of energy generating technologies in the Severn, comparing the costs and benefits of the barrage, tidal lagoons and other proposals?
Christopher Brain and Cllr. Philip Booth, Stroud District Green party
June 14th 2006
For more information read "Harnessing the Severn tides " by Jon Lucas, Bristol East Green Party
(i) The Green Party of England and Wales' Manifesto for a Sustainable Society states "barrage schemes to be tried on a small scale initially, and only extended if found to be ecologically acceptable."
(ii) Friends of the Earth note that David Kerr, ex McAlpine / STPG now chair of the ICE energy group did not contest the £15 billion price tag or the 6-7 p/kWh generating cost at a meeting.
(iii) In 1988 the capital cost of the Severn Barrage was £8.2b and the cost of power (10% discount, 30 years) was 8.19p. Recent figures cite the updated capital cost as £15b but the cost of power has gone DOWN to 6p. Clearly there is something missing. The press says a STPG spokesperson cited the cost of gasoline and the need for emissions reductions as a reason, both true but these do not have nothing to do with the cost of the barrage. So how is this explained? A PhD finance specialist from Imperial College has said that more likely the cost is around 20-22p/kWh if the capital cost has almost doubled.
1. FRIENDS OF THE EARTH CYMRU STATEMENT - June 2006
The Welsh Assembly Government recently asked for another feasibility study into a £15 billion Severn barrage in its response to the UK government's current energy review. Supporters cite the barrage's zero-carbon electricity output, its transport link to Somerset, and its flood defence benefits as far as Gloucestershire. Ecological concerns are countered by claims that habitat changes would benefit some species and balance out detrimental ones, and that sea-level rise will change habitats anyway. So why should Friends of the Earth Cymru maintain its opposition to the barrage?
Principally we believe that, all things considered, the scheme would cause serious damage to an internationally protected site. The Severn comprises 7% of the UK's estuary habitat, and over-wintering for about 65,000 water birds. The barrage would significantly reduce the area of the inter-tidal feeding grounds and cause other adverse changes to important species and habitats. Such changes would also be far in excess of any damaging effects due to sea level rise.
The barrage's power output, which has been widely overstated, should not overrride such protection. Indeed, the barrage would generate 4.3% of UK electricity demand which is 0.75% of current UK energy consumption. In comparison, by 2020 the increasing number of onshore wind farms in the UK may average approaching twice the barrage's annual output at less than half its estimated 7 p/kWhr generating cost. Developers of an alternative technology, offshore tidal lagoons, say that a number of lagoon schemes in the Severn could generate as much if not more than a barrage at significantly lower environmental impact and cost. Friends of the Earth Cymru is trying to obtain what we believe are flawed DTI assessments of tidal lagoons under Freedom of Information requests. But so far the DTI has been unwilling to release them.
Flood defence afforded by the barrage could be provided for in less costly ways and a road link would generate its own detrimental impacts for dubious 'benefits'. Recent discussions about a new rail link across the Severn near Chepstow could consider the incorporation of a flood defence scheme for the river's upper reaches.
Consequently we along with other NGOs have been calling for a strategic comparative assessment of energy generating technologies in the Severn. Conspicuously, the Assembly Government has focussed on a barrage.
2. RSPB POSITION STATEMENT - May 2006
THE SEVERN BARRAGE
The RSPB supports energy generation in ways that minimise greenhouse gas emissions, because climate change is the greatest long-term threat to biodiversity. As a source of renewable energy, tidal power generation has a potential role in containing the production of greenhouse gases.
The Severn Estuary is unique in Europe, with a tidal range of more than 12.5 metres, the second largest in the world after the Bay of Fundy. It is of international importance for wildlife, including waterfowl, migratory fish, invertebrates and plants; riverine, estuarine and intertidal habitats; and geomorphological features.
The Severn Estuary currently accommodates an annual average of around 65,000 internationally important water-birds. Important species present include: Bewick’s swan, curlew dunlin, pintail, redshank and shelduck. A tidal barrage would reduce the tidal range in the estuary and hence the inter tidal area available for feeding birds and while also reducing the exposure time of the remaining inter-tidal areas, due to increased high water stand. At barrage closure, considerable numbers of birds are likely to be displaced. Changes in the sediment regime are also likely to affect the extent and persistence of saltmarsh, leading to dehydration or conversion to freshwater marsh.
The RSPB is concerned that construction of a traditional barrage in the Severn, would have an irreversible, serious adverse impact on the wildlife of the Estuary. It would have a direct impact on four sites protected under European conservation legislation: the Severn Estuary Special Protection Area, and possible Special Area of Conservation, and the rivers Wye and Usk SACs. Once destroyed, this huge natural asset cannot be recreated.
Governments in both England and Wales are committed to sustainable development, a key objective of which is the protection and enhancement of biodiversity. The designation of the Severn under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives imposes a series of stringent tests upon any proposed developments and helps to ensure their sustainability. If as we believe, an appropriate assessment were to conclude that such a project would have a damaging impact the project could only proceed if it could be shown that there were no alternatives solutions and there were ‘imperative reasons of over-riding public interest’. We believe that it would be simple to demonstrate that there alternatives to this project, but even if these tests were considered to have been passed, then compensatory habitat would have to be provided in order to maintain the coherence of the Natura 2000 network. Notwithstanding the irreplaceability of the ecosystem as a whole, this last requirement is likely to prove especially difficult to meet in the context of the Severn.
The RSPB fears that construction of a barrage may facilitate further development that would damage protected wildlife sites, on land upstream of the barrage, as it would enjoy enhanced protection from flooding as a by-product of barrage construction. The Gwent Levels Sites of Special Scientific Interest, on the Welsh side of the estuary, is at especial risk.
The RSPB is also concerned about the considerable wider environmental impacts associated with construction of a traditional barrage, including sourcing of construction materials, and CO2 emissions associated with its construction and from production and use of construction materials, such as cement. We consider the project should be subject to a full sustainability appraisal, especially as it is likely to be presented to the public as an otherwise “green” project making a substantial contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Its overall cost-effectiveness, and eco-efficiency in terms of CO2 balance, and its impact on biodiversity and the wider natural environment should also be fully assessed against other renewable energy options.
It is possible that other forms of tidal power generation could make a significant contribution to renewable energy generation, with less impact on the wildlife of the Severn Estuary.
In summary, the RSPB remains sceptical of the overall benefits that would be derived from a traditional barrage. Its construction would result in irreversible environmental damage to an estuary unique to Europe.