Tidal energy breaks over the horizon

| Global Environmental Processes

Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon wall - courtesy of Atkins

The positive outcome of the Hendry report could see Swansea hosting a breakthrough project on harnessing tidal power.

Proposals to build a tidal lagoon in Swansea have been reviewed by former Energy Minister, Charles Hendry. Published in January, his report stated that the Swansea project had considerable value as a pathfinder project to assess the ability of lagoons to deliver the Government’s decarbonisation commitments. In addition, it would have significant benefits for the local and national economy and job creation opportunities.

To kick the pathfinder project off, Hendry recommends that the Government enters final stage negotiations on the terms of the project. Such negotiations will include the supplier, Tidal Lagoon Power (TLP), and the licence issuing authority, Natural Resources Wales (NRW). One of the barriers to issuing a marine licence is the environmental impact, something which, compared with similar tidal barrages, is expected to be minimal.

Tidal barrages have existed for a long time and are an environmentally controversial method of generating power due to their impact on tidal flows in estuaries and the associated changes to silting, erosion, habitat, birds and fish. Tidal lagoons perform the same function but without such significant impact. As suggested by the name, a lagoon is a partitioned section of a tidal zone such as a bay or estuary, which generates energy from the tidal flow of water into and out of the lagoon rather than the entire estuary.

The Swansea lagoon is expected to be a U-shaped construction of approximately 6 miles containing 16 turbines and the Hendry Report recommends ongoing environmental impact assessment as the project continues.

Economic boost

According to James Regan of the Society of Environmental Engineers (SEE), a focus and emphasis on low carbon, secure power will boost the regional and national economy and is undoubtedly a positive step for the UK.

“The project seems certain to involve engineers from a wide variety of disciplines, and is an ideal opportunity to show the role that renewable energy sources may play in future power supply. The many additional potential benefits, which include supply chain and export opportunities, indicate that the world may be watching with great interest as we take the next steps within this venture,” Regan said.

Emphasising the need for continued vigilance on the possible environmental consequences of the project, Regan told us, “As always we would trust that any and all potentially adverse impacts to the local and wider environment would be considered strongly throughout any proposals and designs, and we are glad to see the level of consultation undertaken to date.

“It is recognised that the tidal lagoon will be a world-first and therefore we welcome the recommendations within the report that a high-level of monitoring of environmental impacts should be undertaken throughout the project.”

Positive news for renewables

Professional services organisation, Ernst and Young sees the support for the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project as a rare piece of positive news for the UK’s renewables sector and therefore very welcome.

According to Ben Warren, Head of Environmental and Energy Finance at the company, truly affordable clean energy from offshore wind and solar is currently being left to fend for itself while the benefits of subsidy are enjoyed by new nuclear and even fossil fuels and it remains to be seen whether tidal energy can deliver affordable electricity in the longer-term. This outcome will depend to some extent on the decisions that now need to be made by the Government.

“For now, we wait to see what price the Government is prepared to pay Swansea Bay for its power, and what risks it is prepared to take on board to ensure this ambitious project gets realised,” commented Warren.

New energy opportunities

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) sees the tidal lagoon project as a potential gateway to even more ambitious energy projects in the future, as explained by Dr Jennifer Baxter, the organisation’s Head of Energy and Environment.

“The tidal lagoons programme offers Wales and the UK a great opportunity to become a global leader in this form of renewable power generation and the project at Swansea will enable greater knowledge and understanding of the role tidal power can play in our distributed energy systems.

“This could create new opportunities for turbine, efficiency and design innovations as well as connecting this power source to storage solutions, such as cryogenic or new localised transport infrastructure.”

Jonathan Newell
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