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Swansea Bay: tidal power’s £1.3bn experiment

Can tidal lagoon energy be both clean and green?

Seven thousand years ago, a group of Mesolithic children and adults made their way across marshland near what is now the Gower Peninsula in Wales. The estuary they looked out on was around 16m lower than its present level and nearby Swansea Bay was still completely dry. Even though the Ice Age was over, enough water remained locked up in ice to keep sea levels low – allowing the group’s footprints to sink into mud and survive the centuries. Today, however, it is feared that rising sea levels will drive communities away from the coast. By 2100, human-induced climate change threatens to raise temperatures by 2-4C and push up tide-lines by 4-6m. In Wales alone, 220,000 households are at risk of flooding.

The government has promised to help counter this global trend by reducing UK carbon emissions 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050.  And with the second largest tidal range in the world, British marine energy could play an important role in this shift. But harnessing the power of the tides is not without consequence. In 2013, plans to construct a £34bn barrage across the Severn estuary were rejected after concerns were raised about its effect on local ecosystems; wildlife groups worried the structure would block the safe migration of fish and impact the river’s thousands of species of wintering birds.

So can tidal technology be both clean and green? A company called Tidal Lagoon Power (TLP) believes it has the answer. Instead of entirely dissecting estuaries with a row of turbines, the company proposes building U-shaped breakwaters out from the coast. At a proposed pathfinder project in Swansea Bay, 16 gated turbines installed inside a 9.5km breakwater wall would generate regular electricity each time the tides go in and out.

The project promises to supply clean energy to 155,000 homes and to enhance the local environment for nature and humans alike. Its eco-minded plans include turning the breakwater into an artificial reef, as well as creating a roost for birds, and new areas of saltmarsh, grassland and dunescape. Wardens will be employed to keep an eye on activity above ground and underwater acoustic camera technology will monitor happenings beneath. A hatchery and ponds for baby oysters will even attempt to restore and conserve native species.

At £1.3bn, this green scheme does not come cheap and the company is seeking government support through a Contract for Difference subsidy. But TLP also views the Swansea project as a “pathfinder” for a series of larger plants. The company claims these subsequent schemes would improve the technology’s cost-efficiency and create further employment, both directly and across a UK-focused supply chain. It is estimated that Swansea development could support 2,260 jobs during its construction and operation alone.

A recent independent review agrees and has found in favour of the pilot. According to the review’s author, the former energy minister Charles Hendry, the long life-span of tidal lagoons makes them an attractive and cost-competitive complement to other low-carbon options, as well as a potential asset to Britain’s wider economy. “As Britain moves into a post-Brexit world, we need to ask if we want to be leaders or followers. If the answer is that we should be leaders, as mine unequivocally is, then tidal lagoons offer an early, achievable and long-term opportunity,” the report advises.

Major environmental organisations have also given the Swansea pathfinder scheme their qualified support. Doug Parr, Chief Scientist at Greenpeace UK, told the New Statesman: “If environmental concerns can be addressed the government should get on with it because it could be the first of a wave of tidal lagoons across the  UK, and even internationally. We can lead the world in providing a new, renewable innovation to meet our clean energy needs.”

But some large green question-marks still remain. The lagoon at Swansea has already received development consent but has yet to obtain a Marine Licence from Natural Resources Wales. And plans for larger tidal projects to come will require further permissions under EU law. According to NRW the process of examining the application has been both “challenging and instructive”. Concerns from wildlife groups include the build-up of silt and unforeseen changes to the movement of floodwaters, as well as the impact on marine and bird life.

Joan Edwards, the Head of Living Seas at the Wildlife Trusts, fears that the lagoon may interrupt the homing instinct of salmon, which migrate upstream close to the coast using smell. She is also concerned about the effects of the estuary flow. “When you build sandcastles on the beach, the sea comes in and you don’t know exactly where the water will go – what channels it will choose to flow through.”

Ultimately, there is still too little information to make accurate predictions. In evidence submitted to the review by the Environment Agency, the following caution was issued: “We currently have little knowledge of, and low confidence in, the modeling proposals for some of the schemes being proposed.” Objections are also being raised to TLP’s plans to source building material for the project from a disused quarry on the Cornish coast, which the company’s CEO, Mark Shorrock, has recently purchased. Alison McGregor of Cornwall Against Dean Superquarry doesn’t think Shorrock, “is as green as he makes out to be.” She is particularly fearful for the impact the re-opened quarry would have on the adjacent Manacles Marine Conservation Zone.

Such concerns prompted the review to call for the adoption of careful monitoring systems. Hendry recommends that if tidal lagoons are built, “the government should require a high level of ongoing monitoring of environmental impacts”. He also suggests the adoption of a National Policy Statement and a Tidal Power Authority, to provide all-round support and oversight for any future industry.

What is harder to settle on is how much monitoring at Swansea should conducted before further lagoons are green-lit. The review recommends that no larger projects should be approved before the Swansea pathfinder is operational. While according to NRW, monitoring the effects of such a project “could take many years to complete given the complex life cycles  of many species.”

So how much monitoring is enough? Even if the impacts at Swansea are deemed manageable, the cumulative impact on multiple lagoons in the same estuary would still be unknown. On the other hand, the economic and environmental case for action is compelling. The government’s decision on whether or not to support the Swansea scheme – and the wider technology – thus faces a deep challenge: of having to commit to a path forward in the face of constant change. Not just the changes that the Swansea pilot scheme will bring to the estuary, but those brought by climate change itself, as well as continuing developments in competing forms of marine and renewable energy.

At least here the government is in ancient company. When the Mesolithic peoples of early Wales inhabited the region, they did so in the face of constantly moving tides and climate. Most likely travelling in response to flood and resource shift, they made adaptation and flexibility central to their success. Now the government must do the same.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Jonathan Bartley on Hinkley's inefficiency, a renewables revolution and how the Green Party can be the UKIP of the left

The Greens' co-leader talks election strategy and why the environment is not an isolated issue.

Is the Green Party a single-issue party? “While we view all issues through the lens of the environment,” the Greens’ co-leader Jonathan Bartley admits, “I think we’re much more than that.” His answer carries a hint of frustration; it’s not the first time he’s been asked this.

The Green Party of England and Wales currently has a solitary representative in the House of Commons – Bartley’s leadership partner Caroline Lucas has served as the MP for Brighton Pavilion since 2010 – but the dad of three insists: “Under a fairer [instant-runoff] voting system, we’d have around 24.” The maths checks out. The Greens took 3.8 per cent (a raw figure of 1,157,613 votes) in the 2015 General Election, which proportionately would translate to 24.7 seats. It’s worth noting, however, by the same token, UKIP would have 81.9.

The 2017 election, announced surprisingly by Prime Minister Theresa May in April, is likely to be fought on issues relating to the European Union, immigration and sovereignty. How, then, can the Green Party elevate its own core policies, which relate to the environment, energy and climate change, up the agenda? Bartley says: “Well of course we have policies regarding those things as well, but by no means can we afford to think of energy issues as unimportant. In terms of how you convey that to people, you’ve got to take a joined up approach. Environmental issues aren’t isolated – where you’ve got issues relating to unemployment, the renewables sector can provide a whole range of job opportunities; where you’ve got issues about budget planning and investment, you’ve got to consider how public money could be better spent. Right now the government is investing a lot of money into energy that simply isn’t sustainable, cost-effective or even efficient.”

Bartley hones in on Hinkley Point C as a particular bone of contention and believes that the Conservatives’ faith in the construction of Britain’s first new nuclear power plant in more than 20 years has been grossly misplaced. “If you look at the money that’s being spent on Hinkley, some £30bn, it’s just totally uneconomic. We can create a centralised, job-poor nuclear option, which locks us into an expensive deal for decades, or we can invest in a decentralised, job-rich, clean energy renewables revolution.”

The popular criticism levied against renewable energy is that it can’t generate the same level or quality of power. According to Bartley, this simply isn’t true. “Honestly, there are low carbon energy sources which could meet our annual electricity demand six times over. Six tidal power stations down the west coast of Wales could supply as much as Hinkley. We’re an island nation, so why are we not using the resources afforded to us naturally?”

The government has forecasted that the Hinkley project will create between 20,000 and 25,000 jobs during construction and 800 to 900 permanent jobs once in operation. Is Bartley confident that a shift to renewables could match or better those figures? “I’m saying that not only can you preserve jobs within the energy sector, but transition them and create thousands of new ones in renewable technology.” Quoting the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Energy Trends 2016 report, Bartley continues: “There’s already precedent too. Taken in combination, offshore wind, tidal and wave energy currently support around 22,000 jobs and add £2.2bn to the UK’s national income.”

The UK’s decision to leave the EU has been delivering curve balls across the political landscape ever since the referendum last year. The European Carbon Trading Scheme, the flagship policy agreed by the bloc aimed at cutting carbon emissions throughout the continent, is one of several elephants in the room. The UK is committed to providing around £1.7bn in funding, without which it is not yet clear how the scheme will survive. Equally, without EU regulations being imposed, where is the incentive to improve the UK’s environmental standards? Bartley rues that the environmental discourse surrounding Brexit has been “conspicuous by its absence” and wants to make sure that environmental regulations become “enshrined” domestically. He adds: “The air pollution standards in London were pushed forward because of the deterrent of EU fines. Now, who holds us to account? This is why the Green Party wants to see an Environmental Protection Act, as well as a Clean Air Act.”

The need to “democratise” the energy market, Bartley says, is obvious. “We’ve got to move away from the reliance on the ‘Big Six’ [energy companies] and decentralise. The Green Party wants to legislate to separate large energy generators from suppliers. Power prices would continue to be set according to the wholesale market where we expect the majority of electricity to be traded.”

Is demand-side response central to the Green Party’s vision? “We’re looking at it in terms of both demand and supply. Crucially, we need to stop energy waste and improve efficiency of use – we must do better with less. We’d look to incentivise provision of capacity at times of peak demand. It’s about cutting demand and creating a long-term plan to make new homes that are low and zero carbon, primarily by super insulation. Every home should be able to generate some sort of its own electricity, either through solar, wind or whatever it might be. The improvements in battery technology are increasing exponentially and community heating and municipal heating projects should be happening in every town. Places like Germany have got some incredible energy communities and distribution networks. People need to see what it’s like to have control.”

Bartley’s and indeed the Green Party’s aims are nothing if not ambitious, but the reality check pertains – with just one MP, how much can you really expect to achieve? Bartley, who attended the same independent boarding school as UKIP grandee Nigel Farage, draws another comparison in his answer. “The fact is we’ve got a first past the post system and so you’ve got to be tactical and target. You start with the councils and then go for the seats where you’ve got the most support. We’ve made considerable progress in Bristol West with Molly Scott Cato and we’re hopeful down there. You make a difference in politics with movements. UKIP managed to do it with the Leave movement, and despite having fewer MPs than us, have affected national politics in a huge way. The Green Party’s movement has the potential to do the same.”

It is there, though, the comparison ends. Bartley clarifies: “The difference is that while UKIP’s movement was a right-wing coup, based on building walls and not bridges, ours is a clear message to Westminster about the benefits of being greener.” He goes on to quip: “It’s like Tony Benn said – ‘I’m leaving the House of Commons to concentrate on politics.’ You shift agendas with movements and that’s what we intend to do.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.