Skip to main content

Tidal Range Energy Generation

Volume 743: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2024

I am going to call Mick Whitley to move the motion, and then I will call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, because that is the convention for 30-minute debates. There will be no other speeches, but I am sure Mick will take interventions if Members ask him nicely.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered tidal range energy generation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline.

The UK, more than any other country in the world, is uniquely positioned to harness the power of its tides. Ten per cent of the world’s tidal resources, and half of Europe’s, are found in Britain. Already well-developed plans for tidal range projects across the west coast promise to mobilise and deliver 10 GW of net zero energy, with the potential for 10 GW of additional capacity—enough to meet approximately 12% of the UK’s electricity needs over the coming decades, when, as a result of our efforts to decarbonise transport, heating and industry, demand for electricity is set to more than double.

While I want to approach this debate constructively, the Government’s ambition in supporting the development of new tidal range projects has been sorely lacking. Tidal range technology was excluded entirely from the Energy Act 2023, and the one reference made to tidal power in the 2022 energy security strategy—a commitment to “aggressively explore” the possibilities of tidal power—has not been delivered on. Although we see encouraging steps in the right direction, including moving towards the inclusion of tidal in the national policy statements on energy and the publication of guidance on tidal range on 18 December last year, much more still needs to be done.

In his correspondence with me dated 26 October, the Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero, the right hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), stated that

“the government remains open to considering well-developed proposals for harnessing tidal range energy”,

but that

“any such proposal would need to demonstrate strong evidence of value for money in the context of other low carbon technologies.”

The issue of value for money has long been cited as the main obstacle to unlocking the potential of the UK’s vast tidal resources. Indeed, when the then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy declined in 2018 to provide the proposed tidal lagoon project on Swansea bay with the price stabilisation mechanism that was needed to guarantee investor certainty, it was on the grounds that the levelised cost of energy was higher than that of low-carbon alternatives, including new nuclear.

I support the hon. Gentleman in bringing forward this issue, which is really important for my constituency of Strangford. He has given the example of Swansea. Strangford lough has obvious potential for a tidal stream, which is why there was a trial there in 2008 with SeaGen. I was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly at the time. It was a successful pilot scheme but did not seem to go any further. As energy prices have risen, the possibility of a new scheme is even more likely. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the devolved Administrations have a role to play in developing tidal stream and tidal range, which the Government should utilise so that we can all play our part in tidal energy?

Yes, I do. There are more examples of tidal energy to come. If the Government take cognisance of the points being made in today’s debate, hopefully some progress can be made.

The former Secretary of State’s decision was met with incredulity by many figures in the industry, coming as it did only 18 months after Charles Hendry’s independent review found that tidal lagoons could

“play a cost effective role in the UK’s energy mix”

and constituted

“an important and exciting new industry for the United Kingdom.”

In retrospect, and particularly in the light of the conclusions of the study undertaken at the University of Birmingham in 2022, which found that the Swansea tidal lagoon would have returned profits to the low-carbon contract company, the Government’s decision not to provide support for the Swansea bay project seems to have been seriously misjudged. It has deprived us of a credible pathfinder project of the kind advocated by Charles Hendry’s review.

However, I have not called this debate simply to revisit debates from a long time before either the Minister or I had entered Parliament. Today is not about looking backwards; it is about facing the future, and asking what we can do to guarantee our energy security in a time of growing geopolitical uncertainty and climate breakdown, and the role tidal range generation has to play in that process. In that vein, I ask the Minister and his colleagues to recognise that the fundamental question of value for money needs revisiting.

Principally, that means adopting a whole-systems approach when assessing cost-effectiveness. The levelised cost of energy can be a useful tool, but it can also be a blunt instrument when it comes to gauging the comparative costs of renewable and low-carbon energy sources that fails to take into consideration the additional costs of solar and wind generation caused by grid transmission constraints, rebalancing and storage.

It also fails to account for the fact that, uniquely for a renewable, tidal energy is a timetabled predictable resource, giving it an important role to play when seasonal factors interrupt supply from solar and wind. In my previous engagements on this issue, I have made the case that when a whole-systems analysis is made, the costs of tidal power are comparable to offshore wind and new nuclear.

I am sure the Minister will take great interest in the research currently being carried out by Jacobs for the British Hydropower Association, soon to be published, which confirms that analysis.

I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) first and then my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell).

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, his important work on this matter and his tireless work for the people of Birkenhead. I am sure he will agree that we have an obligation to future generations, and that we urgently need to put in place the infrastructure to power a fossil fuel-free future. Delay is unacceptable and we urgently need to see Government action.

I know that my hon. Friend does not want to look backwards, but I do. My first meeting on the barrage across the Mersey was in 2015. If Government had implemented it then, it would be operational now. The trajectory was always going to be that alternative fuel sources would be cheaper than reliance on rising oil prices. It is obvious that that will also be the future trajectory. That is why there is a sense of urgency about this now.

I thank my two colleagues for their interventions; I totally agree with their contributions. I hope that after today we will see more movements in tidal power. I do not want the Minister to believe that I am under any illusions about the up-front costs of tidal range generation. They are undoubtedly significant, but these are ultra-long lifecycle assets, which will continue to provide clean, green power for more than a century.

As a case in point, 2024 marks the 58th anniversary of the world’s first tidal power station becoming operation on the Rance river in Brittany. Today, it is less than half way through its estimated lifespan of 120 years, and continues to supply green and affordable energy. As the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee said in 2021, when he urged the Business Secretary to seize the potential of our tides:

“Once these costs are paid off, the energy generated from range projects would be very low in cost and would be delivered over a longer time horizon than (for instance) energy generated from wind installations, which require repeated renewal.”

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his excellent speech. He is right to say that, although the up-front costs of developing tidal schemes can be expensive, the lifetime costs per year are absolutely not. We are in an election year and there is a tendency for us to think short term; we are rebuked for the fact that we need to look long term. If we build the tidal scheme we want to see across Morecambe bay and Duddon estuary, that will mean 7.8 TW of energy, 7,300 construction jobs and 7,400 long-term jobs. That is great for the economy and great for the environment. All we need is a Government that can act for the long term.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He makes a great point. As I have said, right down the west coast there is a need for tidal power, which I hope we can generate. I know it is an election year, but this matter is cross-party and not about being adversarial.

Last year, the Government passed legislation to ensure financial support for new nuclear power aimed at achieving what Ministers have described as a nuclear renaissance. As with tidal range projects, the capital costs of nuclear power plants are considerable, but the Government have nevertheless recognised them as necessary to securing a vital domestic supply of low-carbon energy. We will of course need to consider the optimum financing arrangements for new tidal range projects. In fact, establishing a sustainable financial mechanism was one of the key objectives of the amendments that I tabled to the Energy Bill in September last year, which would have established the tidal range assessment grant to fund an independent, evidence-led study into tidal range generation. Although the contract for difference scheme may be adapted to support the development of smaller tidal range projects, it is clearly not suitable for supporting the development of larger gigawatt-scale projects.

As I said when I last raised tidal range generation in the House, the Government need to be working with the industry to look seriously at the merits of employing a regulated asset-based model for funding tidal range, just as they did last year with new nuclear. There is considerable enthusiasm in industry to develop our tidal range capacities, but investor confidence remains low, largely because of a widespread—and I am afraid, for the time being, legitimate—concern that developers will not have the Government support.

Ministers have said that they want to continue a dialogue with the hydropower industry but if we are going to rescue the 10 GW of tidal range capacity currently stranded in development, the developers need assurances that they will have a proactive partner in Government. The British Hydropower Association has established just some steps that the Government could take to build investor confidence and create a favourable policy context for tidal range. Those include establishing a Government-industry partnership similar to the one established for offshore wind in 2012, which has had such success, the inclusion of tidal range as an explicit technology within the UK energy strategy and national policy statements, and building on the work that was undertaken through the tidal lagoon challenge. We also need Ministers to develop a road map for tidal range, which the EAC recommended in 2021. It called on the Government to set out a stated ambition for the sector in gigawatts of generating capacity, alongside an industry strategy for the sector that would ensure that the supply chain was onshore in the UK in order to support British businesses.

I have spoken so far about tidal range generation only in general terms, but now want to consider the specific proposals put forward by Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram and his colleagues in the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority for the Mersey tidal power project. I understand that the Minister of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, the right hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness met the team behind the Mersey tidal power project as recently as last autumn, so I hope that the substance of the proposals are familiar to the Minister representing the Government in this debate.

The project represents an unparalleled opportunity for our region. It has the potential to provide a predictable domestic green energy supply to a million homes on Merseyside and to create thousands of new jobs, including in my constituency of Birkenhead, while supporting hundreds of UK companies across the supply chain. If delivered successfully, the Mersey tidal power project would undoubtedly be transformative for our region, but its impact would also be felt nationwide, helping to bring us closer to achieving our legally binding targets to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Mersey is a relatively short estuary with shallow waters, and this geography makes the area the ideal location for a commercial pilot project of the kind that industry figures believe is essential to accelerating progress in this sector. By assigning the Mersey tidal power project pilot status, the Government could begin to resolve issues around regulation, planning restrictions and environmental impact before turning their attention to larger gigawatt-scale schemes such the Morecambe tidal barrage, of which I know the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) is an enthusiastic champion.

Here again, though, we need to see the Government working as an active collaborator with the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority as well as industry. The Metro Mayor has, in particular, been keen to stress the importance of central Government making available the kind of funding and support that was provided to hydrogen and carbon capture and storage technologies, and of central and local governments developing a common approach towards the Crown Estate and Duchy of Lancaster so that the necessary seabed leases can be secured without prohibitively high entry costs.

When confronted by the war in Ukraine, the crisis in the middle east and the existential threat of climate breakdown, the question of how we secure our energy independence has never been so important. It is time for us to reckon seriously with how we can exploit our natural geography to secure a clean, green, and domestic energy supply for generations to come. It is time for us to harness the power of our tides.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Dame Caroline. It is also a pleasure to be here to discuss such an important topic, so I congratulate the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) on securing today’s important debate. He has a considerable track record of championing this particular sector—and indeed his constituency, of course—so I welcome his calling this debate.

As was mentioned, the invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent rise in global energy prices demonstrated the importance of securing domestic home-grown energy sources. As we saw at COP28 in the UAE, for the first time, there is a global consensus on the need to move away from fossil fuels. Therefore, I, and indeed the Government, share with the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) the sense of the urgency that is required here and of the necessity to move quickly.

We are very proud that the UK is already a global leader in the field of climate change, and we must continue to find and develop more ways to extract naturally occurring energy through renewables. We have already cut emissions further and faster than any other major economy since 1990, we were the first country in the G7 to halve our emissions, and we have boosted our share of renewables from just 7% in 2010 to almost 50% today. That keeps us on track for our legally binding net zero 2050 target and for a fully decarbonised power sector by 2035.

To deliver these targets and provide long-term energy security, we must consider all of the tools available to us, and tidal range—the reason we are here today—provides yet another domestic energy source to our growing list of renewables. It also shows promise as a large-scale, fully predictable and non-weather-dependent source of power. Tidal range, as everybody in this room knows, could yield energy-system benefits by balancing the grid against variable renewable sources such as wind and solar. Additionally, with sites of suitability being close to centres of high demand, such as Liverpool, tidal range could circumvent the need for extensive grid connections.

The UK has the second-highest tidal range in the entire world, and that is why, in the British energy security strategy, we committed to aggressively explore its potential, building on the research already conducted, such as in the place referred to by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) earlier. Therefore, officials in the Department are doing just that—aggressively exploring the options for tidal range in the future—by working with the sector to model the potential energy-system benefits of tidal range and establish an evidence base to build upon.

Officials in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero will continue to engage closely with the sector throughout this process and will communicate their findings, when appropriate, to the sector and indeed to Members of this House. We have already consulted with the sector and published a dedicated page for tidal range on, and, just yesterday, I had a meeting on how we might improve even that offer through the Government portal. As a nation surrounded by water, we will continue to work with the sector, and with Members interested, to explore and take advantage of the opportunities presented by tidal range to provide clean and secure renewable energy.

I thank the hon. Member for Birkenhead for bringing this important, pertinent and timely debate to this Chamber today, and I look forward to working with him and others, and the sector, as we seek to improve and build upon the success of tidal range moving forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.