Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name about the possibility of a Severn barrage as proposed by Hafren Power, which the Government are considering. Evidence given to the Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change has made it clear that it is a naive proposal, absurdly short on detail, and I am sure that it will not happen. I am glad about that, because its effects would be highly damaging. I hope that it will be strangled very soon. As long as the idea exists, it is delaying proper, careful thought about realistic ways of generating power from the colossal energy of the tides in the Severn estuary and it is also damaging investment.
When I was first in the Commons, my constituency boundary was the Severn for some 18 miles from the edge of Avonmouth to upstream of Sharpness, although boundary changes later took away the northerly six miles.
The reasons that the present proposals will not be put into practice are several and distinct. The four main ones can be summed up in the words “silt”, “habitats”, “economics” and “ports”.
The Severn is a muddy estuary. Millions of tonnes of sediment—literally 30 million tonnes at high spring tides—are washed up and down by the huge power of the tides twice a day. The question is where the sediment will settle if a barrage is built. On the scale that we are talking about, dredging is an unrealistic solution which makes no commercial sense.
There is no chance of replacing the destroyed habitats as we are required to do under the habitats directive. Salmon and other fish will not survive the turbines according to the Environment Agency and other experts during the Select Committee’s inquiry.
The economics are also crucial. Any tidal generator will produce power at highly forecastable but limited times of day and not always at the peak. However, gas, coal or biomass-fired stations, let alone nuclear ones, cannot be switched on and off as the hours of high water come and go. In any case, you have to provide enough generating capacity of other types to fill the peak while the barrage is resting.
That brings me to the effect on the ports. I am particularly concerned about the ports of Bristol and Sharpness, which I first knew as an MP. The evidence to the Select Committee from Associated British Ports concerning its ports in South Wales is similarly hostile to the proposals.
I was primarily motivated to ask for this debate by paragraph 37 in Hafren Power’s submission to the Select Committee, the only paragraph which refers to the ports. It says there will be,
“minimal inconvenience to navigation. Hafren Power intends to minimise any impact on current business at ports upstream”.
In fact the port of Bristol believes its operations would be fatally maimed by the building of the proposed barrage. Forty years ago, Bristol City Council, which owned the docks, built the new Portbury Dock to add to the existing Avonmouth Dock. Some years later, under a Labour council, it sold the whole complex to the present company. Since that sale, over £500 million more has been invested, making Bristol one of the most modern and productive ports in our country. More major investments are planned to support continued growth, but they are currently inhibited by the existence of the Hafren Power proposals.
Bristol is a big ship port. Ships come from all parts of the world with a very wide variety of cargoes. If the Hafren Power scheme were constructed, the navigable water depth at high tide would be reduced by over two metres and perhaps by three metres, depending on the silt, which I mentioned earlier. In the older Avonmouth Dock, ships over 30,000 deadweight tonnes with draughts of nine metres and above would be unable to enter. That would kill important business for the port. In the newer Portbury Dock, the effect would be similar, but it is larger and vessels with a draught of over 13 metres would be very restricted, and the existing largest vessels, currently up to 130,000 deadweight tonnes, could not enter. Of course, ships with lower draughts would be able to enter, but on many fewer days in the year. The port would be commercially unviable, and the current investment would be wasted.
The new locks to be incorporated within the barrage are another problem. They would necessarily be in the deep water channels, and the ships approaching them would be exposed to the full force of the Atlantic weather, unlike the sheltered approaches to the existing ports. There would be delays and risks attached to their operation. There would also be large costs, not only for lock operations but for dredging, pilotage, survey and towage and for the shipping companies. These costs must be paid by the barrage and guaranteed for its lifetime, but we have not been allowed to see the calculations.
Hafren Power wants a hybrid Bill, sponsored by the Government for the benefit of its consortium which would then sell it on to a sovereign wealth fund. It makes it sound simple. This part of its submission attacked my blood pressure and my funny bone simultaneously. Has it no idea of what the procedures, costs and complications of a hybrid Bill are? Let it look at the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill proceedings and it will begin to understand the timescale and the huge costs to all parties—promoters and objectors alike—of this route. It would be a long and highly costly process, profitable only to the QCs and their colleagues involved, as well as to large armies of experts. The ports either side of the estuary and many NGOs are united against the proposal. They remain mystified by some of the claims made in Hafren Power’s submissions.
There have been numerous studies of the possibility of a barrage done over the past century and more. The latest thorough government study took several years, examined all kinds of options, and rejected the idea a couple of years ago. Other countries have considered and dismissed this as a form of power generation—for example, Canada, France, or more recently South Korea.
I recognise that this afternoon my noble friend cannot be expected to give the Government’s considered comments on all this. Apart from anything else they need to see the report of the Select Committee, which I suppose will be with us within a few weeks. But I hope the department realises that the matter needs to be settled. My concern is, as was expressed to some degree in the previous debate, that the Department of Energy and Climate Change has that insidious Whitehall disease of ditheritis—constantly talking and consulting about things and never deciding for years on end. These proposals are unworkable and damaging. It is time to decide and to say, “no”. Then we can get on with deciding how really to harness the massive tidal energy of the Severn without all the damage involved.
My Lords, I rise with some diffidence, given that the noble Lord, Lord Cope, has made his position on this issue clear. I am afraid that I am still somewhat ambivalent about this proposition. On the face of it, it is a fairly major contribution to meeting our climate change targets—5% of Britain’s electricity could be generated by this. It also has economic upsides of substantial employment. There are probably enough speakers on the list who will emphasise the Welsh dimension. I also emphasise that in the south-west there will be a significant number of jobs—probably more than at Hinkley Point.
However, there are economic and ecological downsides. I declare a past interest as a member of the board of the Environment Agency. I was persuaded, with some reluctance, that we should oppose this proposition, largely on the grounds of the effect on migratory birds and fish and the need to find compensatory habitats, as well as the effect on the whole ecology of the Severn estuary. It is not possible to replace the habitats that exist in south Wales for migratory birds, nor frankly is it possible to construct turbines that do not have some fairly negative effect on large numbers of fish. Nevertheless, this is a conflict between two different environmental objectives. We have to bear in mind that to meet the trajectory of carbon reduction to which we are committed—in a sense the subject of the previous debate—we will have to make some unpalatable decisions and face up to some fairly unpalatable costs, whether it is nuclear energy or some of the major renewable projects, including this one.
I do not think that I will have quite changed my mind again. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said, I think that the new proposition has some mitigating factors, although they are not entirely convincing, even to me. We need to look at the latest version with some considerable scepticism, but the project as such has some serious merits. However, I want to seize on the last remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, on whether there are other ways of making use of the great tidal difference in the Severn. There were earlier propositions of having a series of lagoon-type projects that would not save so much carbon—we have to be fair about that—but which would probably cost only slightly less, and would not have either the negative ecological effects nor the damaging effect on the Bristol ports to which the noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred. I ask the Minister specifically whether those other alternatives are still being considered as well as the latest Hafren proposal. I would not want to be as dismissive of it as the noble Lord, Lord Cope, but the Government need to look seriously at other propositions as well.
My Lords, I start by looking at the whole issue of the elusive trail that we have had over many decades to try to harness the power of the Severn estuary. I wish that we could call it the Bristol Channel and Severn estuary because when I was a boy we were taught that the line between Newport across to Avonmouth was the line of the Severn and that after that it became the Bristol Channel. Of course, the barrage that has been referred to is in the Bristol Channel, and we need to look at it as a whole.
The elusive trail indicates that we have had sufficient studies and need to consider what might be the best way in which to move forward. I agree with the previous Government’s report, which said that,
“the Government does not see a strategic case to bring forward a Severn tidal power scheme … The costs and risks for the taxpayer and energy consumer would be excessive compared to other low-carbon energy options”.
So the test of all this is, therefore, to find a way of harnessing this energy that meets the energy needs to which we all aspire but also provides a satisfactory solution to the environmental, economic and technical problems that are an inevitable consequence of this work. The challenge is that putting all our eggs in one basket could result in the outcome that was predicted and agreed to by the last Government, with which I agree: that we cannot do it without significant cost and economic and environmental damage.
I believe that we need to look much more widely at the whole range of energy uses—tidal stream, tidal range, wave power and offshore wind power. All those forms of power and energy are available to us; the problem is that we have only nascent technologies, which have not yet been brought to a level where they can be put into action in demonstrable projects. The whole energy sector has been dogged, for example, by the difficulty of creating appropriate turbines to deal with the rise and fall of the tide. I understand that, in the current proposal, Rolls-Royce owns the concept and patent for a nascent turbine that will work in both directions, but there is no sense that it has been developed beyond a prototype into something that could be seen to work. That is why, for example, a lagoon would allow that testing to take place, allowing that to happen and to build in an appropriate manner.
I understand that the Government have invited submissions, which is where this Hafren proposal has come from. Is there a role for Her Majesty’s Government not just to ask for submissions but to give some sense of direction and promotion to the way in which those suggestions should come? We have an urgent need for a scaled-up demonstration project. Out of that might come the world-wide excellence that we need, and expertise and technology that can be developed elsewhere. Are the Government now in a position to establish what the net economic benefit of the current Hafren proposal is to the United Kingdom? What steps do they propose to take to promote the use of alternative and multiple technologies within the Severn and the Bristol Channel so that we can begin to satisfy the need that is there?
My Lords, I am afraid that you have me today, and not my cousin, who joined the House about a month ago. We both have fewer connections with Berkeley than the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, who used to represent it in the other place. I certainly have a great interest in this project. Having worked briefly on it as an engineer about 40 years ago, I was interested to read a comment in the Financial Times on 18 December last year, saying:
“There are two varieties of Severn bore. The first is a regular surge of water up-river due to the funnelling effect that the English and Welsh coastlines have on the tide. The second is a regular surge of enthusiasm for slinging a barrage between said coastlines to generate tidal electricity”.
That probably sums up where I think we have got to today.
This is a very big project, if it happens, and much bigger than the Channel Tunnel, on which I worked for about 15 years. The difference is that the Channel Tunnel, although it was difficult to finance in the private sector—and Margaret Thatcher clearly and rightly said that it should be—used proven technology. The technology for boring a tunnel in chalk is well proven, but even so, finances were difficult for the tunnel.
However, for this project the small details available do not yet give me any confidence that the new technology is at all proven; the noble Lord, Lord German, mentioned turbines, which I was about to mention, there are locks, and there is the actual design of the, presumably rock, barrage itself. Bearing in mind that the Severn—or the Bristol Channel as it is quite rightly named—is very deep there, it has already got strong tides and wave heights of between six and eight metres. I do not know who has been in a small boat in a six to eight metre swell. I went to the Scilly Isles last week and the swell was quite big.
The force of the tide on a breakwater is pretty frightening even to conceive. About 30 years ago, a breakwater built in a place called Sines in Portugal had a similar storm attack it and it collapsed completely. I am sure designs have moved on since then, but we need to have confidence not only that the design is adequate for these very difficult conditions but that it can be built on time and on budget. The constructability is equally important. We have had no real answers to any of the questions that noble Lords have asked this afternoon, the noble Lord, Lord Cope, in particular. Until they are answered, I do not think one can talk about finance in the private sector.
I recall very early when we were trying to do the Channel Tunnel trying to get commitments from bankers to say it could be financed in the private sector. We got a variety of letters, but in the end they said, “If it does not rain next Tuesday and it does snow next Wednesday, we think we can finance it in the private sector”. That is not good enough nowadays. You need a lot more study, effort and investigation of all the effects, including on the ports, which are extremely serious. I am very doubtful. My recommendation is to cancel the thing now and start looking at smaller schemes, develop the technology and make sure it does not completely wreck the River Severn and the Bristol Channel.
My Lords, anyone who has crossed the Rance barrage near St Malo in France will have seen the attraction of being able to harness the tides to generate electricity. Of course, it is a very narrow dam and it is entirely sheltered in the great bay that St Malo stands on—totally different from what we have in the Severn or the Bristol Channel. I have long seen the attractiveness of trying to do it, but from what I have read and studied, this proposal by Hafren Power is simply not the way that it is going to be done.
My noble friend Lord Cope referred to the effect on the ports, particularly the ports of Bristol and Portbury. I would like to say a word or two about that. The thing that has always puzzled me is how on earth it was going to be financed—and there has been a lot of discussion—other than if the Government were going to find the money. As noble Lords will realise, that is not currently feasible. Therefore, is it going to come from the private sector? We do not know. Hafren Power has been extraordinarily economical with its business plan. It has published documents, but not given any real indication of what the whole business case is. The negative impact that this would have on the port of Bristol has been full spelled out to me by the port company. I have greatly admired what it has done in recent years. My noble friend referred to some of the investments and improvements that have been made. Its growth depends entirely on its competitiveness, and its ability to attract shipping in and out in competition with the many other ports that this country has.
This company’s brief refers to,
“the immediate and ongoing impact of commercial blight on their operations and in the longer term if a barrage was consented and built, the drastic impact the change in the tidal range would have on the viability of the port”.
It says it,
“would eventually lead to closure of the port at the cost of many thousands of real jobs”.
That is its view, and I have not seen the answer to that.
Hafren Power has attempted to answer the points, but I am sure that I am not alone in having seen the port of Bristol’s meticulous attack on the Hafren Power paper in which it describes Hafren Power’s claims as far-fetched, unfounded, naive and ignorant of the way a port in this country is operated. I cannot help feeling that this has all been made perfectly clear to the Select Committee, but it is desperately important. My noble friend has said that this threat should be removed and we should be looking again, as others have said, to alternative methods of harnessing the power of the tides in the Bristol Channel and the Severn estuary.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for giving us the chance to have this debate. So far all the contributions have been fairly negative, so I am very pleased to say that I am going to put the opposite point of view and state some of the advantages of the scheme that is being considered today.
The barrage offers us an enormous opportunity to harness the tidal power of the Severn in a way that could create something unique with a worldwide reputation in terms of its concept and impact. I find it an exciting and innovative project, and if we can find a way technologically to deliver it, it is a prize worth having. It would be clean, secure, sustainable and low carbon. It would deliver 5% of the UK’s total electricity needs. It would be a predictable source of energy as the tide ebbs and flows and, once built, it could continue to produce energy on that basis for over 100 years. Those are all a prize worth having.
The energy it would produce would negate the need for three or four nuclear reactors, going back to our earlier debate, or more than 3,000 wind turbines at a lower cost than either. It is something that should be explored in more detail and, I hope, embraced with both hands.
A number of noble Lords spoke about the environmental impact and obviously this cannot be ignored. There will be changes to the local habitat, but I see this in the context of evolution and transformation rather than of damage and destruction. We had a very similar debate at the time of the creation of the Cardiff Bay initiative with lots of concerns about the wildlife impact, but the truth is that the bay has now attracted new species of birds and fish and has become a new, welcome wildlife sanctuary. I believe that a similar process will occur in the lake behind the barrage which will attract species previously unable to breed successfully because of the strong current.
As I understand it, Hafren Power is working hard with wildlife groups to minimise the environmental impact, and it is important that these discussions continue, but I hope that the local environmental groups will also see the benefit of a big green initiative in their backyard. At the same time, the barrage is being designed to have a minimal ecological impact by being permeable to fish and invertebrates and providing numerous fish ladders which, I understand, take fish only one generation to master.
I have spoken mainly about the environmental advantages of this project but, of course, there are serious economic advantages as well. It will be funded by private investment, with 80% of the investment being spent in the UK. It will employ at least 20,000 people, the construction of the 1,000 turbines will help revitalise the struggling South Wales economy and it could be a major export for us if we get it right.
There is increasing urgency about this matter. We are falling behind in terms of meeting our green energy targets. There may be other options, but to me it seems that this is the only game in town at the moment, so I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate she will be able to reassure us that the Government are taking this seriously and are prepared to consider facilitating the necessary Private Member’s Bill.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, in his extremely able introduction to this debate, mentioned four particular downsides. I would have to add a fifth, which would be flooding. Somerset has had a terrible winter. The effect of the barrage there, as the Severn surge comes up the channel and the Parrett is trying to empty the flood water down into the channel, has not been properly modelled by Hafren. I doubt whether anyone will be able to model it sufficiently. By dint of simply having the barrage, you might be writing off a large part of Somerset. You only have to look at what was flooded this winter to see how likely that is. That is a tremendous downside, especially, obviously, for the people of Somerset. It is a matter that needs to be settled.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, remarked on what he called ditheritis, which is an extremely important point. Back in 2004, Friends of the Earth published a good comparison between the barrage and smaller, more varied schemes, particularly tidal lagoons. It is now 10 years later and we have lost the lead that we might have had on tidal lagoon technology. It is not too late to imagine that we could still forge ahead with it, but which investors will put their money into anything like that before they know what will happen with the barrage? This needs to be settled and settled urgently.
The smaller schemes offer tremendous upsides as well. If we are thinking about technology that we can export, we can pilot a number of things—the tidal stream and the tidal lagoons, as suggested in Swansea bay, which join up with the land and ones that do not join up with the land as suggested for Bridgwater bay. They relate better to communities and would undoubtedly bring the same sort of employment opportunities as a whole barrage but with a more varied application throughout the world. Not everyone has the place to build an enormous barrage. It might be a world tourist attraction, but it would not be the sort of technology that would lead to replication across the world. There would be only one or two other places where a barrage-type structure as proposed would be applicable, whereas the tidal lagoons could happen in a number of other places.
My question to the Minister, which is not original this afternoon, is what is DECC doing to support the piloting of tidal lagoons? It has been remarkably silent on that subject to date. I remember going to see the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, when he was the Minister to talk to about this. He was very helpful, and we had a discussion about habitats and so on. He, of course, was a Defra Minister and it was the responsibility of another department on the energy side, but departments have changed name so often that I cannot remember what it was called then. We really need to get on now and make a decision so that we can look at the more promising technologies.
My Lords, I regret that some remarks about the Severn by senior politicians seem to have generated more heat than light. Following the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, I suggest that we should learn from France. The tidal scheme, La Rance, opened in Brittany in 1966. It generates 240 megawatts, is extremely reliable and has never had to have a major refit. It operates on an average tidal difference of 8.2 metres, whereas the mean for the Severn is 14.5 metres. A much smaller generator at Strangford in Northern Ireland has been working since 2007.
The Severn and its estuary are a national asset waiting to be developed. Of course, I understand the doubts and reservations already expressed by port, wildlife and fishing interests. It is important, however, to realise that a massive fixed barrage is not the only possible means of generating electricity. A much smaller scheme has been proposed up-river at a site known as the English Stones. Tidal lagoons and tidal canals are both possibilities with or without pump storage. A Bridgwater bay lagoon may perhaps have lower generating costs. It occurs to me that the existing supports for one or both motorway bridges could be strengthened to carry turbines driven by the incoming and outgoing tides.
Her Majesty’s Government have had two and a half years to reflect and make further inquiries since the Department of Energy and Climate Change published its feasibility study in October 2010. I therefore urge them to be proactive and to enlist the best academic and engineering brains to identify the most economic method or combination of methods to produce clean, non-polluting energy for generations to come. They should not just rely on nuclear power with its quite unpredictable clean-up costs. Interest rates are now as low as they are ever likely to be, so the present moment is an opportunity not to be missed. I therefore trust that this debate will inject real urgency into the search for solutions.
My Lords, one certainty has not been mentioned so far, which is that simply leaving the estuary alone will cost nothing. We have to deal with rising sea levels, and the Severn estuary is highly vulnerable to them. We already have a London barrage, which we know all about, and which will have to be replaced. That problem writ large all the way up the Severn estuary will be a problem not only in Bristol but in every other city anywhere near the estuary, and all landowners will have to face it too. It is not an easy question to answer. This is part of a much wider issue. That is the first thing that we must realise.
Secondly, to answer a point made by my noble friend Lord Cope, intermittency is not an issue. It would be perfectly simple to build some barrages on the east coast where we have some quite large estuaries. The time difference for high water is almost precisely six hours. If barrages are built on both sides of the country, there will be an even flow of electricity into the system. That point needs to be made.
Thirdly, we do not sufficiently consider the energy pattern and requirements caused by our Climate Change Act. By 2050 we shall have had to say goodbye—I say good riddance—to the internal combustion engine. All land transport will have to be driven by some other system. My bet would be on hydrogen, which requires electricity to generate it. Those who say that it cannot be done because there is no hydrogen infrastructure have got it wrong. The hydrogen infrastructure already exists. Wherever you have electricity and water you can make hydrogen. It is actually much more efficient to use that in a vehicle than to use batteries, and there is not quite the waste disposal problem because hydrogen is permanently recycled. The electricity generating requirements as a consequence of that are at least twice as big, if not two and a half times as big, as anything we are considering at present, so we have that implication, too.
That brings us back to the point that we have this enormous potential resource. The question is not whether we can afford not to use it but how best to use it. I am afraid that I am not enough of a technician to know whether this latest proposal is appropriate, and there we have to fall back on my noble friend in the Government because they get all the information.
The other certainty—this is where I will finish—is that this is a resource that we cannot afford to ignore. It may seem harsh to say that this may be more important to the country than the port of Bristol, but when the chips go down in 10, 15, 20 or 30 years’ time, that may be a reality that we all have to face. If it is a choice between future energy supplies for this country and the future of the port of Bristol, I would hate to be in the position of the Government, but it is a decision that would have to be taken.
My Lords, talk about building a Severn barrage has been going on since the 19th century. In our own time, we know that every reasonable opportunity needs to be taken to develop renewable sources of energy to mitigate the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. A Severn barrage would utilise predictable and sustainable tidal power on a scale to provide perhaps 5% of Britain’s energy requirements, the carbon payback time would be a matter of only months, and the installation could be expected to generate energy for perhaps 120 years. If it is not to be Hafren Power’s Lavernock Point to Brean Down barrage, then it has to be another Severn or Bristol Channel barrage scheme.
Of course, the ecological impacts on sites of special scientific interest and on birds are very important. Biodiversity matters very much indeed. Every care should be taken to minimise damage and to compensate with biodiversity offsetting measures. However, the major gain in relation to climate change surely outweighs those other ecological considerations. There are also legitimate and important business interests for Bristol port and for the aggregates industry, but these should be a matter of negotiation and the Government should actively broker a resolution of the differences that exist there. We need vision; we need decision; and we need leadership.
I was disappointed that the previous Government were not persuaded of the strategic case for building a Severn barrage, and DECC, under this Government, continues to equivocate and dither. The Secretary of State, we are informed, told a Liberal Democrat conference that the consortium’s numbers,
“aren’t in the place that they would need to be”.
He suggested perhaps looking at smaller lagoon projects, and he went on to say, tellingly:
“But government isn’t spending a huge amount of our own time developing those projects”.
The benefits in relation to climate change are vital, but the benefits in relation to the construction industry and the engineering industry in terms of jobs and pioneering technology would also be very great. Contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said to us, I believe that there would be flood protection benefits and that there could also be benefits in terms of transport links. There would be benefits for communities on both sides of the Severn estuary and the Bristol Channel.
If the evidence that has been made available so far is insufficient, the Government should get on and establish the evidence. If, having done so, they have decisive reservations about the credentials of the Hafren consortium or the specifics of this particular project, if the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee gives this project a thumbs down or if problems emerge in terms of the capacity of a private consortium to finance the cost of the barrage—perhaps some £25 billion—then the Government should take the lead and put together a scheme that would work. If necessary, the Government themselves should borrow to help to make this investment. They can borrow at exceptionally advantageous rates in present markets, and I believe that the markets would applaud capital investment by the Government in this kind of infrastructure.
The inertia of Whitehall, of Parliament and of the European Parliament in relation to climate change is one of the factors that cause so many people to despair of politics and to take a gloomy view of the future. I would go so far as to say that it would be a crime against the planet if the Government passed up the opportunity to identify and drive forward an ecologically acceptable and financially robust Severn barrage scheme.
My Lords, this has been a fascinating debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, mentioned the Cardiff Bay barrage and how that changed Cardiff. I gather that it is a much better looking place than it used to be. On the other hand, she actually said that there were environmental advantages to the work that was done there. In fact, what has happened is that the shelduck and other shore birds that were based in Cardiff Bay have now left that area. Initially, they were found in local areas, but they have now totally disappeared. In addition, common redshanks that moved from Cardiff Bay and then went to the Rumney estuary now have much lower body weight and their winter survival has dropped enormously.
I agreed entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, when he said that there was no way that any scheme could possibly be put in place to mitigate against environmental damage. Many millions of tonnes of sediment go up and down the Severn on a daily basis in the spring tides. I gather that 68,000 migrant birds go to the Severn every winter. There are 24,000 hectares of Severn estuary, 20,000 hectares of mudflats and sandbanks and 1,400 acres of salt marsh. Neither must we forget the many different species of commercial fish that use the estuary in their life cycle.
Noble Lords might have already guessed that the environmental issues are the ones that concern me most. We have to consider not just the possible vandalism to the part of the estuary directly affected by the construction of the barrage but the environmental blight to the whole estuary as well as the river catchment area—the Severn, the Teme, the Usk and the Wye to name but a few. The barrage is to have more than 1,000 reversible turbines, claimed to be fish-friendly, to be built by a company that has not yet been chosen to a design that has not yet been made or tested. I understand that the turbines will have a tip speed of 9 metres per second, which I imagine would be fairly lethal to any migrating fish.
We have heard what the Environment Agency has to say about this. The turbines will be operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Highly protected species under the habitats directive such as twait shads—an endangered species—lamprey and salmon would be vulnerable and species such as the sea trout protected under the UK biodiversity action plan would also be in great danger. All this would be happening in a catchment area that contains 25% of the salmonoid habitat in England and Wales. The Angling Trust reminds us that the sea trout and salmon fishing industry in the Usk and Wye is worth £10 million alone.
I consider myself to be extremely lucky. I live fairly close to the Severn estuary and regularly walk along the banks of the tidal Severn opposite Newnham. I regularly visit the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and I just feel that we should be looking at another way of getting our renewable energy as opposed to this present scheme.
Like many noble Lords I have had an interest in a Severn barrage for many years. Indeed, when I was a member of Gwent County Council we strongly welcomed the previous scheme for it and some years later when I visited the Rance barrage I was greatly impressed by the power and the way that the whole operation worked.
Britain now finds itself with an energy crisis as a result of a lack of forward planning. Some 25% of our generating capacity will close in the next few years. We are facing potential blackouts by the mid-2020s unless we invest in large-scale energy projects. I believe that a Severn barrage is a sound form of forward planning because it will provide generations of Britons with cheap electricity.
The construction of a barrage will be a massive boost to our economy and provide thousands of jobs during construction and afterwards. Previous schemes have foundered on two issues—the need for large amounts of public money and the significant environmental impact. But if the developer, Hafren Power, is to be believed, its proposal will not require any money from the Government at all. It is up to Hafren Power to demonstrate and prove that. I hold no brief for the developer, but it claims that it has learnt from earlier studies and proposes a new type of barrage, which will put environmental considerations first. The ambition is to build an 11-mile line of more than 1,000 slowly spinning turbines, housed in massive concrete blocks, between Brean in England and Lavernock Point in Wales. It is certainly worthy of our consideration. Such a barrage will generate electricity as the tides go in and out, so the natural tidal flows can be maintained. The turbines will be spread right across the estuary, so the currents and navigation will not be affected. Looking at other options, I believe that the barrage is superior to wind farms, if only in reliability and predictability. I have first-hand experience of wind farms; when I was Welsh Minister, I travelled to Scotland to visit a new wind farm. The only trouble was that, when I got there, there was no wind.
A barrage, unlike wind farms, brings with it a substantial legacy of flood protection, cheap electricity and economic renewal. A Severn barrage will help defend against tidal flooding and storm surges caused by sea-level rises, and will help to reduce flooding upstream, saving billions of pounds in damages. It has already been mentioned that construction could take more than nine years, and 20,000 jobs could be provided. Those things should not be easily dismissed. Opponents of the barrage, including the Port of Bristol and some environmental lobby interests, have raised proper concerns. These concerns have to be taken seriously, listened to and taken into account so far as that is possible. But they should not be allowed to become a barrier to progress in developing a Severn barrage.
Over the past decades, we have seen report upon report written on the subject of a Severn barrage. These reports have been considered, debated, amended and then forgotten. Indeed, if the trees cut down to provide paper for these reports had instead been floated across the Severn, they would probably have covered the 11 miles from south Wales to the west of England. It is time to resolve the issue of a Severn barrage, and to be brave and bold and commit ourselves to this great enterprise. Frankly, I do not mind who builds and operates the Severn barrage, but I would like to see it built, and built in my lifetime.
My Lords, any proposal that presents the opportunity to harness tidal power, and in doing so generate 5% of the UK’s electricity needs, while also bringing in much-needed inward investment to the south Wales, Bristol and Somerset region, is one to be considered very seriously. The many and varied contributions to the debate today highlight not only the interest but the extent of the effects that building such a barrage shall have, bringing lasting energy, economic and environmental changes. It is on these three parameters that any scheme must be assessed, with extensive effects not only on the estuary but throughout the region. The clear conclusion of the debate is that the Hafren Power scheme is unsatisfactory. On that basis, however, the balance of the debate was to try to find some scheme to capture the advantages, albeit with an understanding that there are inherent difficulties. Even the noble Lord, Lord Cope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, hinted that better was to come.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change reported on initial feasibility studies in October 2010. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, highlighted the background canvas against which the energy assessment can be made. The report assessed five potential schemes to be feasible. As the Government’s feasibility study and Hafren Power’s own plans highlight, the barrage has the potential to generate up to 5% of the UK’s electricity generation, around 15 terawatt hours a year. As well as having the advantage of being entirely free, the reliability of the tides that power the barrage also removes the problem of intermittency that affects other renewable energy sources. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, suggested a second tidal scheme. However, it could not be constructed in time to contribute to the UK’s 2020 renewable targets.
On economic considerations, the potential gains to the local area could also be very significant. The expansion of the steel works at Port Talbot and Bristol, and the new factories that Hafren proposes to build in south Wales and Bristol to make the innovative bi-directional turbines that the barrage could hold, could lead to a much broader economic regeneration in the area, which is much in need of inward investment of this magnitude. Indeed, one of the highlights of this project is that, if it were to go ahead, it would be almost unique as one of the few large-scale infrastructure projects not planned for the south-east. But as well as having many positive effects, the designs as they currently stand raise several notable economic concerns that would need to be thoroughly addressed: notably the effect of the barrage on Bristol’s docks, which support up to 8,000 local jobs, is crucial.
My noble friend Lord Courtown reminded us that the environmental consequences of the barrage are even more challenging than the economic or energy impacts. My noble friend Lord Berkeley said that something of this sheer size and with this kind of design has never been tried before. As the government study makes clear, among other things it is unclear how the current regulatory framework would apply to such a structure in an environmentally sensitive area. The 200 or so turbines that would power the barrage still need to be designed, tested and built; something that will take nearly a decade alone.
The Severn and its many tributaries are internationally recognised natural heritage conservation sites. Many characteristics of this unique environment will be changed by the presence of a barrage. Hafren’s controversial suggestion of allocating £1 billion for providing compensatory habitats for affected wildlife, while seemingly attractive, will go no way towards the value of such a unique habitat. The department’s report concluded that tidal power in the Severn estuary would be at high cost, high risk and at a value of money less attractive than other renewable energy technologies.
My noble friend Lord Whitty asked what other schemes were still under consideration. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, despite being against, still wanted further and better schemes to come forward. Rather than embark on a massive scheme, my noble friends Lord Berkeley and Lady Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked whether there were some smaller schemes worthy of being undertaken to gain expertise and experience that could, by small steps, provide insights into the future, albeit that they may appear less than attractive on their own merits. As the noble Lord, Lord German, and my noble friend Lord Howarth suggested, the lead should be given by her department. The noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Jenkin, asked whether we should not learn from such overseas experience.
While making reservations, the Welsh Government are essentially positive to a scheme. Will the Minister explain what discussions have taken place recently with the Welsh Government, how valuable these discussions have been and whether her department has a shared pathway towards supporting the Welsh Government’s in principle approval in the near future?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Cope for introducing this debate in a very thoughtful and informative way. We have heard a wide range of views. During the debate, they edged towards one end of the argument more than the other, but again it allows me to lay out the Government's commitment to renewable energy.
We are number one in the world for installed offshore wind capacity. We are also the world's leader in marine energy, with more devices deployed in the UK than in the rest of the world combined. The Government have been a proponent of exploiting our rich marine energy resource and making the most of the jobs and growth that it can bring. There are a number of questions that I need to respond to. Given the shortness of time, I will undertake to write to noble Lords if I do not manage to respond to questions that have been raised.
Harnessing power from the Severn estuary could clearly be a significant asset for the UK, but this has to be done sustainably. That is why my department led a two-year cross-government study investigating the potential of Severn tidal power schemes. The study concluded in 2010 that it did not see a strategic case for a publicly funded tidal power scheme. The Government have remained open to the possibility of a privately funded project coming forward. Our study has provided us with a wealth of evidence on the potential effects of the Severn barrage. In particular, it highlighted how little we knew about the dynamic environment of the estuary itself. It concluded that environmental impacts, particularly on fish, birds and habitat, are likely to be larger than expected and extremely challenging to mitigate and compensate for.
The study demonstrated that a barrage might provide a net benefit to the regional economy, with net value added to the economy and jobs created. However, these would come at the expense of a potentially large negative impact on the current ports, fishing and aggregate extraction industries. The study also identified the likely cost of the Severn tidal schemes to be as much as £34 billion for a barrage at a time when there are easier and cheaper alternatives. Despite the extraordinary amount of work produced, the government study barely scratched the surface of the potential effects of a Severn barrage. Any specific proposal for a barrage would need extensive and credible evidence on the effects of its particular design.
This brings me to the current Hafren Power proposal for the barrage. We have received an outline proposal from Hafren Power and have had some discussions with the company. However, the information provided so far does not allow us to assess whether the proposal is credible. Nor does it demonstrate if the project can achieve the benefits that Hafren Power claims. There are a number of issues that Hafren Power will need to explore in much greater detail before we could take a view as to the whether its proposal warrants further interest from the Government.
In particular, we need to see credible, clear evidence of the likely effects of the proposal, including evidence on the environmental impacts; that the project is affordable and good value for consumers; of the effects of the proposed turbine on both the environment and energy output; on the impact on upstream ports and navigation, and detailed mitigation plans; detailed evidence around flooding impacts; and detailed evidence to support job creation figures. Those are questions that a number of noble Lords have already raised here today. Crucially, the project will require substantial revenue support to provide a return on the investment. It is therefore vital that Hafren Power provides robust evidence that the level of support sought for the project compares well with the expected future cost of alternative low carbon technologies, such as nuclear power or offshore wind, that a barrage would most likely displace.
The Hafren Power proposal has not gone far enough in providing the evidence required at this stage for the Government to justify endorsement of the project. That said, as is the case for any similar project, should Hafren Power develop its proposal further, and in particular provide credible, robust evidence to substantiate the claims in its outline proposal, the Government are prepared to consider it further.
The House of Commons’ Energy and Climate Change Committee is currently running an inquiry on the Hafren Power proposal. The inquiry has raised much interest and the committee has received a lot of input and information. Only a few weeks ago, my ministerial colleague, the Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change, gave evidence at that inquiry, making the points that I have made today. I look forward with interest to the conclusions that the committee will reach within the next few weeks, based on the evidence it has received. I am sure that noble Lords will join in reading its conclusions with interest.
I quickly turn to some of the points raised by noble Lords. My noble friend Lord Cope asked if we would agree to introduce this, as Hafren Power has asked, as a hybrid Bill. The noble Lord knows the complexities of introducing legislation. Given we do not have enough evidence and are not fully confident that the project as it stands is viable or affordable, the case has to be much better made. As I have explained, Hafren Power’s current proposals fall very much short of that.
My noble friend asked about the Government being privy to the financial details of Hafren Power’s proposal. As my ministerial colleague in another place showed to the Select Committee, we have received only an outline of the proposal and this mainly focuses on detailing the work programme in advance, rather than on providing detailed information about the proposal itself, and that includes finance.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and my noble friend Lord German asked about alternative ways of using the Severn estuary. That is why we welcomed the recent Regen South West report on a balanced technology approach in the Bristol Channel. There is a huge amount of energy in the channel, and it is only right that we should be seeking the best ways of extracting that energy. Any proposal or set of proposals will have strongly to demonstrate, as with Hafren Power, that they are viable, good value for money for the consumer and environmentally responsible.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Cope that a barrage would produce intermittent energy. Despite its intermittency, the highly forecastable nature of tidal energy could provide strong system-balancing benefits. However, as my noble friend made very clear, these need to benefit the overall scheme including climate change, energy and economic, environmental and cost impacts.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, I swiftly resume my position in responding to the questions raised by noble Lords. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is not in his place, but I will respond to a question that he asked about developing other technologies in place of the proposed barrage. We are committed to looking at all types of marine energy technologies. We have provided sustained and targeted support for the development of the wave and tidal stream sector, enabling it to move from initial concepts to prototypes, and are now looking to support the first array of support packages for the programmes.
My noble friend Lady Miller asked about support of lagoons. I think the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, also alluded to them. Lagoons were a subject of the Government’s 2010 study. Our position remains the same. We are considering all credible privately funded proposals. The department is aware of the proposal to build a 250 megawatt tidal lagoon in Swansea bay. The project is in the pre-application stage in the Planning Act consent process. We expect a formal application for the consent to be submitted later in the year.
My noble friend Lord Courtown asked about the impact on wildlife. Whatever proposal we have—whether it is that of Hafren Power or any other proposal—the Severn tidal power feasibility study highlighted how little we know about the dynamic of the Severn’s environment. Therefore, we need a better understanding of the impacts that the projects will have on wildlife, and Hafren Power needs to provide further details of the proposal and the work it is going to do to mitigate any impacts on the environment, and particularly on wildlife and habitats. Currently, we do not see enough evidence to support that.
My noble friend Lady Miller also asked about the flood risks of the barrage. The Hafren Power proposal suggests that a barrage would create a positive effect by reducing flood risks, but we have not yet seen enough evidence to substantiate those claims.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is still not back in his place but I will respond to a question that he asked concerning the need to build a barrage in order to meet our 2020 targets. Given that the construction of the barrage would not help us to meet those targets because the proposal is a long way even from concept stage, we need to look at other plausible pathways for low carbon energy, several of which do not include tidal or marine energy.
The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked about our discussions with the Welsh Government. We have had discussions at an official level and I know that the Welsh Government would support a credible proposal. However, the key to all this is that the proposal has to be credible.
There are a number of questions that need to be answered. However, I see that my 12 minutes are up, so I shall close by reiterating that we want a more detailed proposal from Hafren Power. Any proposal that it puts forward needs to substantiate the claims of environmental benefits as well as good value for money for consumers and socioeconomic benefits. Should this power be harnessed, it must be done sustainably, as any plans going forward will need to take account of the unique ecology of the Severn estuary, its existing social and economic activities, and all the costs associated with harnessing its power.
This has been a very full and interesting debate and one that I suspect we will come back to as further proposals from Hafren Power come forward. I should like to end on a positive note. My noble friend Lord Cope, who introduced the debate today, has, through the tie that he is wearing, educated me a little further on the importance of knowing about Bristol port and its history. The tie illustrates the ship, “The Matthew”, which in 1497 sailed from Bristol port and discovered America.
Committee adjourned at 7.29 pm.