New independent commission will explore tidal energy from the Severn Estuary

Severn Bridge

A new independent commission will be set up to relook at whether the time is right to use the Severn Estuary to create clean sustainable energy.

The commission will be announced at the south Wales and western England’s first powerhouse conference, Green Growth in the Western Gateway today.

The commission will have an open remit to explore a range of options including looking at what energy technology exists, which areas would be appropriate and how environmental impacts can be minimised.

It will be made up of a range of experts working together to understand whether there is now a viable option for using the tidal power of the Severn to create energy for the UK.

The commission was agreed by the Western Gateway Partnership, the pan-regional partnership for south Wales and western England.

No decisions have been made about what a potential solution for getting power from the Severn might look like or whether any development will take place.

But in 2010 a high-profile modern project using tidal power generation was the proposed 10-mile barrage across the Severn Estuary between Lavernock Point in Wales and Sand Point in Somerset. This massive project aimed to provide the same amount of electricity as three nuclear power stations, reaching 8.6GW during peak water flow times. It was claimed that the Severn Barrage, which would easily have been the UK’s largest civil engineering project since the construction of the Channel Tunnel, would be able to provide for around five to six per cent of the country’s electricity needs.

But the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) pulled the plug on the project in favour of pursuing other renewable options, as well as plans for new nuclear power generation. The announcement came after the Severn Tidal Power feasibility study reported that the project was comparatively high cost and high risk.

Then, in 2018, the government refused to support the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project, planned between Cardiff and Swansea, saying that the project and proposed programme of lagoons did not represent value for money.

That project was pioneered by Gloucester-based Tidal Lagoon Power  who said it would attract £40 billion of capital investment.

Government rejects Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project

An independent review of tidal lagoons by Charles Hendry was published in January 2017. In the review, Charles Hendry said: “Power from tidal lagoons could make a strong contribution to UK energy security, as an indigenous and completely predictable form of supply.” However, he also concluded that a programme of tidal lagoons that could deliver constant, or as near as possible to constant, power would be an absolutely huge undertaking, requiring tidal lagoons around much of the country.

In the 2017 review, he said: “It is my belief that this is too ambitious a goal to be set at this time, before even one has been built, and could only be considered properly when more progress has been made on building a number of tidal lagoons.’

In a statement to Parliament in 2019, Business and Energy Secretary Greg Clark said that the capital cost per unit of electricity generated per year in the Tidal Lagoon Power proposal would be three times that of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. On that basis, he said: “Swansea tidal lagoon would cost £1.3 billion to build. If successful to its maximum ambition, it would provide around 0.15 per cent of the electricity the UK uses each year.”

What’s changed in three years? 

Katherine Bennett CBE, Chair of the Western Gateway Partnership, said: “We’ve known for some time that the Severn has huge potential for creating clean renewable energy.  With the second largest tidal range in the world, it has been estimated that this could create up to 7 per cent of the UK’s total energy needs.

“Following new commitments to combat climate change at COP 26 and advances with technology, we want to have another look at the evidence to see whether there is a viable solution to harnessing this energy and protecting our environment. I look forward to seeing more announcements about this commission later this year.”

Cllr Jane Mudd, Leader of Newport City Council and Vice chair of the Western Gateway, said: “The time is right to look again at what could be an incredible source of clean, environmentally friendly energy on our doorstep.

“We need to play our part in finding solutions to the global climate crisis and the commission will have the expertise and independence it needs to explore whether using the Severn Estuary to create sustainable power is attainable and viable.”

Cllr Huw Thomas, Leader of Cardiff City Council and Western Gateway board member, said: “Unlocking the tidal energy potential of the Severn Estuary is of particular significance to Cardiff, as is securing investment into the strategic rail infrastructure linking Cardiff to other core cities and to London. It’s estimated that the Severn Estuary could supply 7 per cent of the UK’s energy needs.

“The UK Government has so far not lent its support to such a scheme due to a perceived requirement for high levels of public investment and concerns over the environmental impact on designated areas in the Severn Estuary. However, the changing landscape of the climate emergency, energy insecurity, rising costs, and rapid technological improvements indicate that many of these policy, cost and environmental barriers may no longer be as significant. We want to find out just what could be done to harness this incredible energy resource.”

Cllr Mudd and Cllr Thomas have been announced as the lead board members for tidal energy. Announcements about who will sit on the commission are expected later in the year