After years of planning and scores of proposals, attempts to generate renewable electricity from the Severn estuary drew a step closer this week; as the Energy and Climate Change Minister, Ed Milliband, unveiled the 5 diverse, but technically feasible shortlisted proposals. They range from the colossal 10 mile barrage that would block the entire Severn estuary to the relatively discreet series of lagoons with would harness the ebb and flow of the tide to generate electricity. With the common aim of becoming Britain’s single biggest source of electricity, the project could generate as much as 8GW, replacing around 4-5 polluting coal-fired power stations.

The five proposals are:

1. Cardiff-Weston Barrage – 10-mile scheme costing up to £22bn could generate as much as 8.6GW – 5% of the UK’s energy needs

2. Shoots Barrage – Would generate around 1.05GW – equivalent to a large fossil fuel plant

3. Beachley Barrage – A small scheme which would generate around 0.625GW

4. Bridgewater Bay Lagoon – Would enclose a section of the english coast. Could generate 1.36GW

5. Fleming Lagoon – Would enclose a section of the Welsh coast. Could generate 1.36GW

“The largest proposal to harness the power of the tides on the shortlist could save as much carbon dioxide as all the residential emissions from Wales.” Ed Milliband, UK Minister for Energy and Climate Change. 

In addition, a further 10 proposals which did not make the shortlist have been allocated a share of £500,000, to develop ’embryonic technologies’ including tidal reefs and tidal fencing. 

Harnessing renewable electricity from the Severn estuary, which has a tidal range of up to 14 metres (second largest in the world) would make a significant contribution to the UK’s commitment to generate 20% of energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020, whilst also increasing Britain’s energy security. However, environmental campaigners who are largely in favour of renewable energy generation from the estuary remain were dismayed that smaller more wildlife-friendly schemes were sidelined in favour of these larger projects, which threaten to destroy the areas biodiversity. 

Jonathan Porritt, Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission which has advised the government on the Severn project, added that this polarisation of views remains “daunting“. The question is – are we willing to embrace a huge source of low carbon and secure energy at the detriment of the local biodiversity? Some supporters of the scheme argue that in light of the global climate change issue, such significant steps to decarbonise our consumption, would render other environmental concerns as irrelevant. However, those championing the environmental concerns argue that the consequences of irreparable change to these habitats, not to mention the political preferences set by the strong likelihood of breaching the EU directives protecting them, would be so dire as to negate the benefits of clean, renewable energy offered by the Severn. Ed Milliband added that…

We have tough choices to make. Failing to act on climate change could see catastrophic effects on the environment and its wildlife, but the estuary itself is a protected environment, home to vulnerable species including birds and fish. We need to think about how to balance the value of this unique natural environment against the long-term threat of global climate change.”

The 3 month public consultation has now started. Whilst the final decision isn’t expected until 2010, it is interesting to note in the meantime that the “now or never” mindset is being adopted by a growing number, in light of tighter targets to address global climate change (through renewable options providing oil independence), which is really driving this project.

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