10. 10. 2007

Tidal Power in the UK

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The Sustainable Development Commission’s report about Tidal Power has been out for more than a week now, and we have just about weathered the storm from environmental NGOs – and the Environment Agency – horrified as they were that the Sustainable Development Commission could possibly have given its name to an upbeat assessment of the potential for a barrage on the Severn estuary.

I can’t really blame them. It’s been an article of faith for so long that all self-respecting greenies will, by self-definition, be opposed to a barrage on the Severn. It is, after all, a quite unique environment, and the damage that a barrage will do will indeed be severe. Birds, fish, countless invertebrates, let alone a huge expanse of mud flats, will be lost. No wonder so many people believe that it’s impossible to pursue a barrage proposal without breaching our legal obligations under the Birds and Habitats Directives. We think they are wrong on that score. With the right kind of compensatory package, that damage can be “offset”, if not absolutely in the same part of the world, then certainly elsewhere in the UK.

One NGO that was noticeably restrained in expressing its concerns at the time was The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Little did we know that they were about to announce a major new habitat restoration project at Wallasea Island on the south Essex coast. Building on a prototype project pioneered right next door by Defra, this will be one of the largest schemes of its kind in western Europe, returning arable farmland to a mosaic of mud flats, salt marshes and coastal marshland – a very special kind of habitat, 90% of which has been lost in the UK over the last century through drainage and development.

I defy you not to be inspired by this project – http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/w/wallaseaisland/index.asp

“It will be an exciting landmark conservation and engineering project for the 21st Century on a scale never before attempted in the UK, and the largest of its type in Europe. It will demonstrate how land can be managed to help the coast and its wildlife adapt in the face of climate change and accelerated sea level rise.

The RSPB is working to transform a large area of arable farmland at Wallasea Island, in the heart of an internationally important estuary, back into coastal marshland. This will create a wetland mosaic of mudflats and saltmarshes, shallow lagoons and pastures. These will be criss-crossed by low-lying bunds along which visitors will be able to access much of this new 'Wild Coast' ".

But I couldn’t help noticing that there was no price tag attached at the moment! It will, for sure, run to many millions, and this still has to be raised. And that of course is just a fraction of the total compensation package that is likely to be required for the Severn Barrage.

Our argument on that score is a simple one. We are going to have to do many, many schemes of the Wallasea Island kind as we start to adapt to accelerating climate change. And where exactly is the money going to come from? There is just no way that loyal supporters of the RSPB are going to be able to stump up such a massive amount.

But if the bill for such compensatory packages (as we ourselves have recommended) is included right up front in the capital costs of the Severn Barrage project, we just might have one of those elusive win wins: 120 years of relatively cheap, nearly zero-carbon electricity, providing 5% of our total electricity needs, plus an adaptation strategy that really does do the job on an ecological front.

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11. 10. 2007
Clive Bates

Jonathan - I'm afraid this is just a little too patronising for my taste.

"I can’t really blame them. It’s been an article of faith for so long that all self-respecting greenies will, by self-definition, be opposed to a barrage on the Severn."

What if, like me, you think the project makes no sense on climate change grounds, is a fantastic fantasy waste of money, distracting from doing the right things, inconsistent with the SDC report on nuclear, naive in the extreme about costs of capital and public sector financing, fails most reality checks on economics and habitats creation etc.

You are positioning it as a tough choice, but we shouldn't even be talking about harassing the poor bloody birds into a new 'compensatory habitat' until you can show it makes sense on climate change grounds, that there are no alternatives, and there is an over-riding public interest in going ahead (those are the Habitats directive tests). To summarise: it doesn't make sense, there are alternatives, and there isn't a public interest case.

If you think the counter arguments are as narrow as you portray them, grounded in unthinking dogma, I fear you have under-stated the views of the critics...

Have a look at my two postings on the Severn barrage.

One in advance of the report - on the case for the Severn Barrage - does it hold water?

Another following the report, taking the report to task for flawed economics... you seem virtually indifferent to value for money or prioritisation in climate policy...

I don't claim a monopoly of wisdom on this and would be happy to be proved wrong if it was the right thing for the environment. But the SDC report doesn't do anything like enough to make the case for spending £15 billion on the output of two Sizewell B power stations and carbon savings at about 10 times the going cost per tonne. No-one is served by trivialising the arguments against the barrage or their proponents. Let's have a debate on all the points of contention!

I've now left the Environment Agency, so these are my personal views.


12. 10. 2007
Gregory Norminton

Jonathan, I heard you being typically 'robust' (nice Foreign Office word, that) about the Severn barrage on Radio 4 last week. While I appreciate and to some degree share your exasperation with green pressure groups, it has to be condeded that the ecological damage that would be done to the estuary cannot easily be made good.

We are getting quite skilled at habitat restoration but I'm sceptical that we can succesfully 'off-set' the losses created by such a scheme. Oliver Rackham once said of new woodland creation (and I paraphrase), 'you can no more recreate a forest by planting trees than you can rebuild a cathedral by piling up a load of rocks and stones'. Are we really able, yet, to rebuild all the complexity of an apex ecosystem?

On the other hand, the effects of runaway climate change will probably dwarf those of any manmade structure: so do we have any choice? Whatever happens on this one, keep up the good work.

12. 10. 2007

5% of our electricity needs doesn't seem large enough to justify the Severn Barrage scheme. Surely there are better ways of generating future electricity eg solar films? Or better still, we could reduce our consumption by 5%? eg by replacing street lights with ones which respond only to pedestrians and cyclists going past.

16. 10. 2007

I'd agree with Elizabeth that reducing power consumption by 5% would appear to be a simpler and more cost effective way of approaching the issue.

I've long thought that we don't need our night skies lit quite so brightly, by the rows of lamps on motorways and major roads - cars do have headlights after all - and just who is all that shop-front neon aimed at in the early hours of the morning?

Taking away the 'standby' on the myriad of domestic electrical appliances is a positive step in reducing unnecessary power wastage, so can't the UK Government lean (gently) upon shops and businesses and ask them to turn out the lights?

And, on a topical note, I wonder how many town councils think of the environmental impact when they're switching on the festive lights? But then they're probably consoling themselves by balancing the impact against festive cash flows...

18. 10. 2007
Clive Bates


I think you may be under-estimating the arguments of the 'greenies'. What about those, like me, who think the Severn Barrage represents a really poor climate change measure and is basically a massive turkey? At £15 billion to produce the output of two Sizewell Bs, it's a fantastically expensive way of saving carbon - perhaps about 10 times the going rate. Just because it is a single project, doesn't make it superior either - what about increasing the renewable obligation by the same amount as the barrage produces? Would a barrage compete with potentially hundreds of smaller installations? And that's before we've looked at the really cheap options available through energy efficiency. Underpinning these points is the idea of opportunity cost - other things we don't do, because we have tied up £15 billion on a barrage.

I've set these arguments out more thoroughly in two articles on my own blog:

This one before the SDC report was publish summarising the basic arguments:

This one after, looking at the carbon economics and case for 'public sector' treatment...

If it doesn't stand up on climate change terms, the question of whether the birds, fish and worms should be harassed into new habitats should not arise.

The Habitats Directive only requires delivery of compensatory habitats after two prior steps are completed - assessment of alternatives and a case made for over-riding public interest. You can't do those test without positioning the barrage within a principled decision-making framework climate change.

The SDC report is weak on the following fronts:

1. No convincing case for exceptional public sector treatment, and completely misleading comparison between technologies (eg. barrage at 2% with other technologies at commercial rates of return). Everything looks much cheaper if it has access to cheap capital - so why the special treatment for the barrage?

2. No testing of alternatives or framework for deciding what should and should not be done. The report gives no clue at what costs the barrage would be unacceptably expensive. There is too much descriptive 'what' and 'how' and not enough analytical justification of 'whether' and 'why?' in the report. It is almost taken as self-evident that the barrage should be built.

3. Misunderstanding of how the public sector treats 'public interest' capital projects - it doesn't just make capital available at the rates it can borrow at. The report recognises that it is upending energy policy, but seems unaware it is also upending public sector procurement policy and the public financing system too.

4. Unexplained inconsistency with the economic treatment of nuclear power in the nuclear report. In the absence of a principled explanation of the different approaches, the appearance is that the answers were those the Commission wanted to hear and the evidence marshalled to support the desired outcome.

5. Ducking the tough argument about a trade off between protecting specific habitats here and now and general protection for habitats everywhere. The report's framework gives the Habitats directive to primacy... Why? This means the habitat protection is ALWAYS more important than the climate change objective. But is that really always justified? The habitats are changing anyway, and there must come a point where some sacrifice is worth making - especially as complete compensation is unlikely ever to be possible. And birds do have some adaptation capacity themselves.

06. 11. 2007
Gavin Thurston

It's clear that plans are already in place to reduce Carbon Emissions by using less energy. The Carbon Trust has been campaigning for this for years and pressure is increasingly being brought to bear on businesses, and UK government, to cut their energy bills by utilizing technology as well as common sense. In my book 5% (reduction in energy use) + 5% (generating energy from renewable sources) = 10% (Bigger impact on reducing our effect on Global Warming).

Perhaps other projects need to be considered ahead of the Severn Barrage but it would appear that we can have a more immediate impact if we invest in renewables as well as reduce consumption. With doubt looming over how long we have to make this change in emissions perhaps we should be doing both?

07. 11. 2007
david bryden


I'm with Elizabeth on this too. I'd prefer us to look more closely at reducing consumption by 5% rather than damage an important ecosystem to satisfy this need.

We often talk about our energy "needs", but how much of these "needs" are really necessary? Taking away 'stand-by' has already been mentioned.
I'd also be curious to know how much additional energy has been used to power our burgeoning night-time economy with pubs, clubs etc staying open later and longer as well as keeping shops open on Sundays. These two features of our nation's lifestyle are actually recent developments.(Does anyone know any figures for the amount of additional CO2 emitted with the advent of Sunday opening and as a result of later opening hours for pubs and clubs? How close is it to 5%?)
Do Sunday opening and later opening hours etc. constitute a part of our energy needs? I'd like to see these aspects of our lifestyle curbed first before we engage in the destruction of a habitat to serve these particular "needs"?
There are a couple of other dimensions to this, too. Firstly, ecosystems exist to serve the earth. We have to recognise very quickly that the Earth and its ecosystems are not there to serve us. We have to fully internalise this idea and make it a part of the very fabric of our being so that our thoughts, actions and lifestyle are an expression of this idea. In order to understand this, we need to hit some sort of boundary where we are forced to make this idea a part of ourselves so that our behaviour changes. If we go ahead with the tidal barrage at the Severn, the message will go out that the Earth and its ecosystems can be manipulated at will to serve human ends. A decision not to go ahead with the barrage will send out a clear message of the need to reduce energy use and make the necessary changes.

My second point is one of fairness. The night-time economy certainly accounts for some of our energy “needs”. Now I’ve never been to the area where the barrage would be, nevertheless it is the kind of place from which I would derive enormous pleasure and would like my children to experience, too. I don’t see why I should lose this particular pleasure so that other people can experience the joys of late night drinking and dancing?

17. 12. 2007
Dan Talbot

Dear Jonathon why is it necessary to make out that a tidal barrage would have a ' highly dammaging ' effect on wildlife ? All the evidence from the La Rance barrage in France is that it will become an even richer wildlife habitat , biodiversity actually increased . A barrage creates an area of sheltered water behind the structure , causing the sediment to sink to the seabed making the water clearer and therefore more suitable for plant growth . According to the French , fish populations which migrate through barrage are unaffected and invertebrate populations increase in the more fertile seabed sediment . We have to remember that populations of different species are in a constant state of flux , from one year to the next depending on the weather . The tidal range will be reduced , but all of the creatures that live in the intertidal zone can survive permanently underwater so no species would be lost from the habitat . If people really do care about wildlife there are plenty things they can do to build up the volume of creatures , like not over fishing in the area , or improving the quality of the water or perhaps we could even look at fertilising the estuary with appropriate organic nutrients .

It is ridiculous to think that tidal lagoons or flow turbines could generate anywhere near as much power at such a low cost as a barrage . It's absolutly amazing that the government recently came out with a proposal to build seven thousand wind turbines . Eight thousand one megawatt size wind turbines wouldn't even generate as much power as a tidal barrage or be anywhere near as reliable . I do wish somebody in a position of power would make the brave decision to to build a barrage .

16. 10. 2008
Nick Eales

Hi Jonathan

That was rather a throw-away comment by Dan Talbot that 'It is ridiculous to think that tidal lagoons or flow turbines could generate anywhere near as much power at such a low cost as a barrage' Hasn't he read the foe briefing?

Indeed, I think you could have given it more consideration in 'A barrage of questions' on BBC1 14th October 2008. A tidal lagoon is efficient as it is not built in deep water, so the impoundment is not much higher than the tidal range. Also it generates on both flood and ebb tides. There seem to be so many advantages. The barrage is an enormous project that is attractive in its seduction. It cannot be justified financially, by comparison with the alternatives.

18. 07. 2012

The need for a massive isacerne of renewable energy resources is agreed by al of us greens but like the recently defeated Lewis windfarm application, and the current proposal for a barrage from Cardiff to Weston across the river Severn – that don’t meet sensible environmental standards. Based on the available science, we believe they'd harm the environment. And for this reason, we’ll continue to challenge them robustly, and other developments like them.If any renewable energy proposal threatens sensitive wildlife through its operation or construction, we’ll oppose it. But if it won’t have an adverse impact on the wildlife around it then – just as we always have – we won’t stand in its way. Indeed we will be encouraging it to go ahead. For the foreseeable future, we need wind energy etc. to combat climate change. If we are going to wean our planet off fossil-fuel based energy production before we reach the point when climate change can’t be stopped, we need dramatic action. We need to find a constructive way through the obstacles that are currently preventing this. If we don’t act now, and it is us greens who have been publicising this for decades, we’re effectively condemning thousands of species of animals and plants to extinction. And threatening the lives of millions of people. Us greens are passionate about the natural world around us. If something threatens that environment, whether it’s climate change or an inappropriately sited windfarm etc. application, we’re duty bound to challenge it. It is perfectly possible to for these installations to be in placed in locations which do not cause major threats to the local environment and wildlife, however those that initially make the proposals and choose the sites are not environmentalists but business men and when they choose locations which are inapropriate they will be opposed.I do not think that it is the green amonst us who generally oppose these sites but those of the not in my back yard brigade I myself was approached to sign a petition against a local wind farm in Scotland and told the man who asked that even if the location was on the hill directly behind my house and not a couple of miles away I would not sign the petition. To assume that the majority of those who generally oppose them are environmentalists is I believe wrong unless they are in appropriate places.As for nuclear power plants among the greens there is a difference of opinion as to whether we should build more, the same as their is in the general population, I am in the section of those who believe that we have no choice but have to allow more. We can no longer afford any rigid principle but one: that the harm done to people living now and in the future most be minimised by the most effective means, when building more.All the decision made on the siting of these new installations must take into consideration all the environmental issues. It is possible to do this thereby causing the minimum damage to the environment and I like the rest of us greens will continue to back those plans which have given proper impact assessment to the local environment and oppose those which are environmentally damaging.

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