Indpendent review hails Swansea Lagoon a “significant economic opportunity”
Pic: © TLP
Years of “dithering” could be nearing an end this year after plans for a £1.3bn tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay were backed by a government-commissioned review.
Former UK energy minister Charles Hendry's independent report into the viability of tidal power concluded this month that the technology was cost-effective, would bring “significant economic opportunity” and would make a "strong contribution" to the UK's energy supply.
The UK government still needs to agree on a deal, and a marine licence is needed for the Swansea Bay plans to be approved, but Hendry says moving ahead with a pathfinder lagoon off the Swansea coast should be seen as a “no-regrets" policy.
More, larger lagoons around the UK coast could follow, but Hendry adds it "could only be considered properly when more progress had been made".
The Hendry Review also concludes that the technology would "contribute positively" towards the UK's decarbonisation goals, that it was "beyond question" that local economic regeneration would follow, and that it offers "significant economic opportunity" for Wales and the UK. However, it also adds that a high level of monitoring of environmental impacts would still be needed, recognising the fears of other groups affected by the proposals.
Already, the Angling Trust has called for more environmental research to avoid "a colossal series of white elephants”, though the Wildlife Trusts of Wales have been more circumspect in their response. Pointing out that the review recognises tidal lagoons are an untested technology, they’re welcoming the recommendation of a pause between Swansea becoming operational and other plans for lagoons commencing. In fact they’d like to see at least an eight-year pause to cover two fish-spawning cycles.
“The development of renewable energy should not be at the expense of biodiversity,” says Sarah Kessell, chief executive of The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. “The State of Nature report showed 60 percent of our wildlife is in decline. We can’t accept further loss of important habitats or species.”
The Hendry Review points out that it’ll be necessary in many cases for developers of potential tidal lagoon sites to make good the loss of existing habitat for wildlife in order to comply with the Habitats and Birds Directives. It’s anticipated this wouldn’t affect Swansea Bay, but plans for a tidal lagoon in Cardiff would require a significant amount of such ‘compensatory habitat’, say the Trusts.
“We support renewable energy and the UK’s current targets to increase the proportion of overall energy generated from alternative sources,” Kessell adds. Yet while welcoming plans to develop understanding of the technology, particularly the impact on fish populations, the Trusts are firmly of the belief that renewable energy needs to be “right technology, right place”.
The Severn Estuary has the largest tidal range in Europe. But being home to a vast array of wildlife, coupled with a rich cultural heritage and a wild and beautiful landscape, it’s also one of the UK’s great natural wonders and a globally important site for nature. Being home to over 100 different species of fish – the highest diversity of any estuary in the UK – compounds the fact that turning it into a world-leading technological playground is fraught with controversy.
“It’s important any decisions adhere to the Well-being of Future Generations Act which requires any decisions to take account of the resilience of ecosystems and biodiversity,” says Kessell. “Any decision will also need to comply with the duty under the Environment Act to sustainably manage natural resources.”
Politicians are restless, however. “It's time to stop dithering and get it built,” says Labour shadow business secretary Clive Lewis.” And the potential economic benefits are hard to ignore.
"If you look at the cost spread out over the entire lifetime - 120 years for the project - it comes out at about 30p per household for the next 30 years,” says Hendry. “That's less than a pint of milk.
“That's where I think we can start a new industry and we can do it at an affordable cost to consumers.”
The Swansea Bay project – which would consist of 16 turbines along a breakwater – could be a prototype for much larger lagoons off the coast of Cardiff, Newport, Bridgwater Bay in Somerset, Colwyn Bay and west Cumbria.
Gloucester-based developer Tidal Lagoon Power (TLP) sees the Swansea project as a test bed, after which the technology could eventually meet 8 percent of the UK's energy needs at less than the cost of electricity from the new Hinkley C nuclear power station. TLP claims its Cardiff lagoon would be large enough to generate enough electricity for all homes in Wales.
Plans for tidal power in Swansea Bay first emerged in 2003, but immediately faced environmental concerns. Natural Resources Wales (NRW) – who award the all-important marine licence – have long since had serious concerns about the impact of the proposed lagoon in Swansea Bay on fish, particularly salmon and sea trout, and the modelling of the impacts on fish is now seen as unreliable and flawed by environmental groups. The impact on flooding, birds and marine habitats is also a concern.
The latest discussions with NRW began in 2014, and TLP and NRW say they’ve been in "exhaustive discussions" about the impact on fish.
For now, the focus shifts to the UK government. “We'll consider recommendations and determine what decision is in the best interests of the UK energy in the long term," says business and energy secretary Greg Clark.
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