Severn barrage moves closer despite opposition

Posted: 20 November 2007

The hotly debated Severn Barrage, which would harness the power of the huge tides in the Severn Estuary in the west of England, has moved a big step closer, following the recommendations of the Sustainable Development Commission and yesterday's endorsement of the scheme by the UK Environment Minister, Hilary Benn.

The Commission's report outlined the potential of this £14 billion renewable energy project in the context of carbon limits and the spectre of climate change. The whole project will now be subject to a multi million pound feasibility study, which is sure to be controversial.

Severn Barrage map
Severn Barrage map
Two separate schemes have been proposed to harness the Severn's tidal power. Credit: Sustainable Development Commission
The proposed barrage across the Severn Estuary, a site with one of the largest and most impressive tidal ranges in the world, would in theory be capable of supplying 5 per cent of the UK electricity demand. A 10 mile armoured wall across the estuary would house more than 200 hydro-electric turbines and generate electricity with the ebb and flow of the tide. However, the proposed scheme has hardened critics due to the unique nature of the site for wildlife and biodiversity.

The UK urgently needs to develop its renewable energy resources and adapt to climate change, but not at the expense of internationalprotected sites said WWF. It warned that if the Severn Barrage project was to be given the go ahead by Government, it could open up a Pandora's Box, enabling all kinds of developments to override the protection of key habitats and species.

Morgan Parry, Head of WWF Cymru said: "UK estuaries and coasts offer us a vast potential source of renewable energy, and the Government isright to be looking at ways of harnessing this power. However, the development of tidal energy resources should not compromise the futureability of these ecosystems to adapt to climate change. WWF urges the Government to consider more economically viable and sustainablealternatives to the proposed Severn Barrage which could deliver a comparable amount of energy."

Habitats Directive

Speaking earlier this month at the Labour Party Conference, John Hutton, the Business and Enterprise Secretary described the Severn Barrage project as "truly visionary" and announced a feasibility study on theconstruction. Yet, says WWF, the government's own environmental agencies have publicly said that the construction of the barrage cannot comply with the Habitats Directive.

Parry adds, "The Habitats Directive is a fundamental component of sustainable development in Europe. To weaken the Directive, so as toenable the Severn Barrage to go ahead, would open the door to other high carbon developments including oil and gas and will critically undermine the UK's efforts to adapt to climate change and protect biodiversity. If we are to address climate change we need to do two thingssimultaneously: reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and protect critically important systems such as the Severn Estuary so that naturalecosystems can evolve and adapt."

Opposition has come too from Friends of the Earth which has identified six major reasons why a series of tidal lagoons would be a better option than the proposed Severn barrage.

Cheaper option

  • Lagoons are far more efficient - they could produce up to 60 per cent more energy than the Severn barrage

  • Lagoons are much cheaper - they would generate electricity at about half the cost of the barrage (3 pence per kilowatt hour versus 6 pence per kilo watt hour)

  • Lagoons would not impede navigation - unlike the Severn barrage, which could significantly reduce freight trade entering the UK via the Severn ports, Avonmouth and Portbury. This would have adverse knock-on effects on Bristol, and strain capacity and transport links at other UK ports

  • Lagoons would not destroy an internationally important habitat - unlike the Severn barrage, which would destroy the feeding grounds of tens of thousands of birds and damage the legally protected Severn Estuary

  • Lagoons would integrate well with other renewable energy schemes - unlike the Severn barrage, which would need expensive stand-by capacity to cope with the huge twice daily pulses of power that would not synchronise with the daily variations in grid demand

  • Lagoons would be compatible with a Shoots barrage near the Second Severn Crossing, which could provide flood defense and a strategic rail link from London to south Wales avoiding the ageing Severn tunnel.
The FOE report concludes that a relatively small tidal lagoon demonstration scheme should be built to confirm the technology's impressive power output, siltation management and cost claims.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)says some of Europe's largest and most important mud-flats, vital for a variety migratory birds, are to be found in the estuary. It says the scheme could mean the loss of 11,000 hectares of land and inter-tidal mud flat, much of it protected under environmental legislation.