Welsh Green Dragon

Battle of the barrage – is the Severn tidal barrage under threat? by Chris Halpin

With one of the largest tidal ranges in the world, the Severn estuary has been mooted as the ideal place to harvest the earth’s kinetic energy since as early as 1925. Various schemes have been and gone, with most unable to justify themselves economically.

The latest proposal links Weston-super-Mare to Cardiff with a 10 mile long barrage, which could provide an annual energy output of up to 15GW, looked set to follow them last week with rumours in the Times on Friday that the government was pulling the plug.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change quickly responded to the article saying that nothing of the sort had yet been decided and that instead they were awaiting results of the latest feasibility study. With talk of savage cuts by the government as the recession still has us tightly in its grasp, I’m not entirely surprised that plans for sustainable energy schemes are facing the chop first – their denial seems mightily flimsy if you ask me.

Environmentally controversial

The Severn barrage has divided opinion among environmentalists for many years; it’s clean green energy but will displace thousands of birds in the estuary who rely on the mud as a bountiful feeding ground.  However, the environmental trade off is that water levels will rise with global warning anyway, and such habitats will still be lost.

Redshank looking for lunch

With the draw that this mega-barrage (set to be the largest tidal power station in the world) will be able to produce up to 5 per cent of the UK’s annual energy input, surely it’s a step in the right direction to cutting carbon emissions and hitting EU and global targets. Or the alternative is investing in nuclear, which will no doubt provide us with cheap energy and we’ll continue in our current wasteful ways. Ed Miliband’s proposals from July reported in the Guardian look set to slip if the barrage project does run aground.

Fellow WGD blogger Tanya and I recorded a radio two way interview on the whole debacle if you’ve got a spare three minutes.

Hanging in the balance – you can’t make everyone happy

The messages seem to be mixed, and obviously you can’t please every corner, but surely cleaner and more efficient energy production should prevail. There seem to be a multitude of arguments weighing up the pros and cons of the barrage, some stronger than others. As I’m no expert on the subject I wouldn’t want to belittle any of the arguments against as I am sure they are very valid, but I would see it as a crying shame if a barrage of some sort was not given the go ahead. Of course it would be a bad thing for thousands of birds to lose their habitat, but that’s what’s going to happen to us if we don’t face up to climate change and start to produce clean energy.

Ed Miliband in the Severn Estuary to see one of the proposed lines for the barrage - July 2009

Oooo , I’ve just read that back and it doesn’t half sound melodramatic – theres nothing like a mini Monday melodrama! I’m not saying that I’m entirely for the barrage, I just feel mightily deflated that the government seem to be abandoning a scheme that to all intents and purposes is a step in the right direction. The proposed alternatives to the bombastic Cardiff-Weston barrage might just give the concept the nip and tuck it needs here and there for it to please even the most ardent of bird lovers.


3 Comments so far
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I’m all for the idea of a barrage which will bring a lot of benefits (and people always play this down because i guess we feel it to be selfish to think of ourselves and not of the helpless wildlife). For example the barrage would create a new transport link to the south west, shortening journey times and lowering their associated emissions, whilst providing an economic boost at either end. A rail link such as is incorporated in the Oresund Bridge in Denmark would also drastically improve the network and encourage mass transit use. And then there is the obvious bonus of creating a huge (!) freshwater playground to enjoy upstream of the barrage.

However, I would miss the bleakness of the mudflats at low tide. And if you don’t believe me stand amid barnacle encrusted iron columns under Penarth pier or watch shopping trolleys and traffic cones emerging from the mud below Newport castle. And if this is all a bit arty then be amazed by mesolithic footprints revealed at low tide on the Gwent levels or by surfers riding the Severn Boar.

I appreciate the need for sustainable energy sources in order to protect the environment, but surely not at the expense of the Severn’s.

My pessimistic solution (to most sustainability issues): Let’s just shove a few wind turbines out to sea.

Comment by Tom

I see your points Tom, and some of the alternatives to the big barrage in the video won’t be to the detriment of the things you mention, but would probably mean the transport link would be off the cards.

Plus I wouldn’t count on British civil engineers managing to create anything as elegant as the Oresund road rail link! Tidal lagoons have been mooted or underwater low head barrages which work when the tide is coming in aswell as when it is going out. The low head barrages will be cheaper and according to Peter Jones, an expert on the proposals from the RSPB who I interviewed last week, could even produce more energy. I think they work like underwater wind turbines which turn either way in the current, so don’t rely on trapping the water then letting gravity do its work.

I have not yet witnessed the Severn Bore, or many of the other things you’ve mentioned so I best be getting myself down there! I am going to make it my life’s ambition to surf the bore, hopefully I’ll have time to learn to surf first!

Comment by chrishalpin

You’ve sold me on the idea of a ‘low head barrage’ but it is a shame that the transport link idea is dead – have you ever tried to get to cornwall from south wales -nightmare! And i reckon our designers and engineers could do something as elegent as Oresund, afterall Arup engineered Oresund and Foster designed Millau – but yeah british builders wouldnt be allowed near it! Good luck with the surfing.

Comment by tom

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