Power Generation (River Severn)
1:27 pm

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Steve Webb (Northavon, Liberal Democrat)

Good afternoon, Sir Nicholas.

The timing of this debate could not be more appropriate and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of generation in its broadest sense from the River Severn. I deliberately did not call the debate "The Severn Barrage" or "Fifteen things you didn't know about tidal lagoons". The idea behind the debate is that there seems to be an overwhelming case for making far more use of the River Severn's tidal power and I urge the Government to take a lead on the idea.

The timing of the debate is significant for two reasons; the Minister will be familiar with one, but not the other. The Minister knows that an energy White Paper is due imminently. I hope that the ink on it is not quite dry and that my representations even at this late stage will encourage him to ensure that a serious, publicly funded appraisal of the options, benefits and costs of different forms of power generation from the Severn becomes an important feature of that document. That is one of the principal reasons why I have sought this debate now.

The second reason, of which the Minister may not be aware, why the timing of this debate is particularly appropriate is that I have just extensively consulted my constituents. I e-mailed several thousand of them to ask their views on whether they support in principle a Severn barrage. I posed it in that way not because I have a closed mind on the issue—I do not, as will become apparent—but because if I had simply asked whether we should get more power from the Severn, I was in danger of getting results such as those of newspaper phone-in polls, in which 100 per cent. answer yes and no one answers no. I did not think that that would be very helpful.

I specifically asked whether my constituents supported a Severn barrage in principle. In their ever-creative manner, they responded yes but added in their comments that they did not mean a barrage, but something slightly different. I had to interpret the results carefully. However, I received more than 1,500 replies—unique answers—from my constituents. The majority were in favour of the principle. I should explain that I asked the question as neutrally as a politician ever can. I provided internet links to the arguments in favour and against. For example, my initial question contained links to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds site, the World Wild Fund for Nature and so on. Those who wished to do so had the opportunity to read both sides of the argument before coming to their judgment, and a majority of six to one in my constituency supported the principle of a barrage although, as I say, the nuanced replies were slightly more complex.

What was interesting was the variety of people who supported the principle. Constituents who are pro-nuclear thought that a barrage or a tidal power scheme was a good thing just as much as those who are anti-nuclear. We have the interesting position of being a constituency with a coast along the Severn and a nuclear power station, so there is a lot of local interest in energy matters. As I say, being pro-tidal power from the Severn does not mean that people are in any particular faction on wider aspects of the energy debate. There appeared to be a broad spectrum of local opinion.

I have consulted my constituents on other issues, and the issue of tidal power from the Severn saw perhaps the biggest spontaneous write-in response that I have ever had. We all know that when we do surveys and so on one or two people might spontaneously fill in a blank box with an idea, but when person after person says, "Never mind that, what about tidal power from the Severn?" one starts to realise what a groundswell of support there is for the idea.

I am sure that the Minister will be familiar with the context, but I shall set it out for the record. We are talking about an estuary with the second largest tidal range in the country. Many of my constituents who, although I have reached the grand old age of 41, still regard me as a bit wet behind the ears tell me that such issues have been talked about for a very long time. Even as recently as the 1970s, the dear old Central Electricity Generating Board undertook a study. At that time, the argument was that because oil was cheap, we did not need power from the Severn.

In 1981, the Severn barrage committee considered a range of locations. One thing that one starts to discover is that there is no such thing as "the Severn barrage"; it could go in various locations. Interestingly, the committee recommended a barrage location that would not necessarily generate the maximum power. There are some interesting trade-offs between full-blown all-singing, all-dancing schemes way down the estuary that block the entire thing off, go for miles and generate huge amounts of power but probably have the maximum environmental knock-on, and a few lagoons and bays that will cause limited environmental damage but might have less potential for generating power. Part of my point in urging a fast and substantive cost-benefit analysis is that there are so many trade-offs. We can maximise the power potential, but might thereby do more environmental harm than we are willing to do.

The important thing is to come at the issue not doctrinally but independently, almost pragmatically. We should start with a blank sheet of paper—although the sheet is not blank, because it has been gone over many times before—and not commit ourselves in advance to a particular answer. The technology is evolving and the energy market is changing all the time, and we need someone to take a hard, up-to-date look.

The biggest substantive study seems to be the one undertaken at the end of the 1980s by groups including the Severn tidal power group, which came up with the idea of a 10-mile barrage stretching from Lavernock point near Cardiff to Brean down near Weston-super-Mare. To give an idea of the scale, that barrage was envisaged to provide electricity equivalent to 5 per cent. of the UK's entire electricity needs. It was costed in those days at £8 billion—we might double that number; on Olympic budgeting we might triple it. It is a familiar technology, which has been in operation at La Rance in France for 40 years, albeit on a much smaller scale. It could take eight to 10 years to construct, but could last more than a century. The technology is familiar, albeit on a larger scale than has been envisaged before.

At that time, the idea was shelved again; there seems to be almost a tidal flow to the idea. High interest rates were an issue. Since then, energy costs from other sources have risen, as has the desire for renewables and concerns about CO2 emissions. We are in a different world. It is worth mentioning that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, when considering different scenarios to reduce UK greenhouse gases by 2050, included some form of Severn tidal power in three of its four principal scenarios. This is a mainstream idea whose time has come.

Last year, in its energy review, the Minister's Department said:

"Tidal impoundment schemes—such as barrages and lagoons—and tidal current technologies have the potential to make a significant contribution to carbon reductions."

When do we move from potential to actual? Part of the thrust of the debate is to get a steer from the Minister. Obviously I do not want him to break the embargo on his White Paper—well, I do. However, people say to me, "We've heard it all before. It has been talked about for 30 or 40 years. This is more talk, more hot air—or whatever. When are we going to get more action?"

I do not want to talk only about barrages, although they are obviously the subject that grabs the headlines. On the face of it, a barrage-type scheme has a number of attractions. Clearly, tidal power through a barrage is tremendously predictable. We know the times and scale of the tides and we know when electricity can be generated and when not. Compared with some other forms of renewable energy, it is far more predictable.

I have mentioned the substantial scale of what could be achieved and the saving of millions of tonnes of CO2 every year, which has to be welcome. Such tidal power is clearly a secure domestic source of power and in a changing and troubled world many of us would sleep better at night—even those of us who live near the River Severn—if we knew that we were not quite so dependent on imported sources of power. It is clearly a clean source of power, as there is no issue of long-term waste disposal. One interesting idea to arise from the responses from my constituents was the suggestion that a barrage could be used as part of the transport infrastructure. It has been suggested that there could be a rail route across it. Some of my more pessimistic constituents have noted that the Severn bridge, which is in my constituency, is rusting. They feel that sooner or later it will rust away and we might need another route across. I hope that we will act sooner than that, but the potential to use a barrage as part of the transport infrastructure is important.

Flood protection will be a growing concern to coastal constituencies, and there is potential for that. The next idea is double-edged, for reasons that I will come back to, but the construction of a barrage has huge potential consequences for tourism, water sports and so on. We can see why such an idea is attractive to people.

The big reservation that people have is about what such a move would do to the environment in a special place. The Severn estuary has many environmental designations already, with more under consideration. National and international laws and obligations would, rightly, be central to any appraisal. That is why, as someone who is interested in the issue but does not claim to be an expert, I do not know whether the environmental costs would outweigh the potential benefits of the schemes. I want to see the work that has been done looked at through modern eyes, in the way in which we now consider the marine and coastal environments. That has moved on greatly since the last comparable study.

There are concerns. I know that Mr. Drew, who represents Slimbridge, is hostile to the barrage idea because he is concerned about the mud flats further up the estuary. Something on this scale cannot be done without a big impact on the ecosystem. There are arguments on both sides. Some people say that if there is less tidal flow, less sediment is disturbed, which means that the water becomes clearer, more sunlight gets through to the river bed, more life grows on the river bed and so there is more plant life, more fish life and more birds. I would not have thought of that, but that argument has been put to me. The RSPB has made an interesting observation on that point in its briefing:

"A greater abundance of more common species is not a substitute for the loss of scarcer species as well as a rare habitat that is an important resource for migrating wildlife."

Those are difficult things to weigh up if a scheme would make an area more habitable for some sorts of wildlife, but damage a habitat for others, and if there are not many similar habitats elsewhere. How do we weigh such things up? It is clear that we need to get down to specifics. Since the matter was last fully appraised, the arguments about the birds have changed. Patterns of migration have changed, as have the birds in the estuary. This is a moving feast and that is why we need up-to-date analysis.

The view is, interestingly, that the cost of an appraisal such as that which I am talking about, and the cost of getting it through the planning system is probably difficult for the private sector to bear, which comes back to the question of the Government's role. The construction and operation costs are commercially viable, certainly according to the Severn tidal power group. In other words, nobody is saying that the Government should build a barrage or other tidal scheme, but they probably must act as co-ordinator. The Welsh Assembly Government will clearly have a key interest and role in the matter; the Welsh Secretary (Mr. Hain) is a great advocate himself. An awful lot of co-ordination will have to occur. Somebody will have to take the lead, and I see the Minister, whose innate leadership skills are called on, to be the person who steps into the breach. I look forward to seeing him step into that mantle, if one can step into a mantle, in a moment.

I mentioned development. Clearly, there will be lots of jobs—somebody who replied to my e-mail survey said, "It'll be like the south coast, only cheaper," although I do not know about that—but development could easily be inappropriate as well. The estuary is an environmentally sensitive area. We do not necessarily want a raft of development alongside it. A balance must be struck. Also, development will obviously have an effect on shipping. It will depend on where in the estuary the barrage is built, but if it is below Bristol and other ports, that must be considered.

It is so easy for the debate to be dominated by the barrage. A variety of other approaches deserve active consideration. Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth support different forms of tidal power, and I urge the Minister to ensure that they are properly appraised. I have seen Friends of the Earth appraisals that say that tidal lagoons are a better bet than a barrage, but the construction companies that might build the barrage say that their schemes are much better than lagoons, which will not make any power. I do not know. Somebody independent who knows what they are talking about must resolve the issues and give us definitive answers.

The principal alternative appears to be man-made tidal lagoons that fill and empty through turbines on the ebb and flow of the tide. Each one might have a smaller power potential, but they do less environmental damage. It is suggested that when the Oldbury power station in my constituency is decommissioned, that coastal site might be used for such a scheme. I gather that Tidal Electric, which holds the patent on tidal lagoons, is already considering options for doing that sort of thing in Swansea bay.

One of my constituents said to me, "Look, the problem is that we need base-load power generation, and tidal power is not base-load power generation." One of the interesting things about lagoons is that to some extent, they can be used to time shift—to shift the point at which the tides flow in order to change the time when electricity is generated, although the tide can be held back only for a certain length of time. People have also suggested underwater marine current turbines, which would not have to be an alternative—for example, the turbines could be combined with a barrage. It does not have to be either/or.

Where do we go next? The Sustainable Development Commission is considering UK tidal resources, including Severn tidal power, and is due to report in mid-2007. But what I fear is another report saying, "Wouldn't it be interesting?" and "This is an idea worth further investigation"—the classic academic "We need more research". When will somebody bite the bullet, drive the matter forward and try to resolve it once and for all? We need an appraisal that considers the different options—barrages, lagoons and underwater turbines in different locations—and the economic and environmental costs and benefits of each.

There is considerable cross-party support. I mentioned the Welsh Secretary; I attended a briefing recently by the Severn tidal power group at which a Welsh Labour MP was in favour, and which was hosted by a Conservative MP. My hon. Friend Stephen Williams and I have been promoting it, as has Bristol city council, and hon. Members from the area are interested in the scheme. It is not a party political issue, but one that many of us with an interest in the Severn estuary want to see furthered. The role of the Government and this Minister in particular is to be a driving force. Instead of letting it drift, let us have some real power.

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Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield, Conservative)

I call the Minister to reply to this most interesting debate.

1:44 pm
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Malcolm Wicks (Minister of State (Science and Innovation), Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

It has been a very interesting debate. I had better try to maintain the interest level as best I can. There was a time when I thought that I would be destined for ever to debate social security and pensions with Steve Webb, until one day for reasons of mortality—hopefully a day far advanced—our last winter fuel payments arrived. It is not that they were not fascinating debates, but this one is also interesting. I am grateful to him for securing this debate. He obviously takes a keen interest in the matter.

I did know about the hon. Gentleman's survey, because I monitor him carefully. I do not always use satellite technology at the moment, but that will come. However, I did not realise that so many had responded to the survey. Hopefully, they were not paying £1.50 a call; I am sure that his ethics preclude that. His findings were interesting. I had better not talk about rising tides of support, because he has out-punned everyone in this debate and I shall not try to follow him. I shall set the context, however. I know that the hon. Gentleman is aware of it, but I shall do so for the record.

The energy challenges that we face were described recently in the energy review and will continue to be the main policy drivers for the energy White Paper, which will be published in May. From the start, our objective has been a better position to tackle the two major long-term challenges for UK energy policy. The first and foremost is climate change. Global carbon emissions are continuing to grow. In addressing climate change, we face arguably the biggest challenge to human civilisation—for once the speaker does not exaggerate in saying that. Secondly, we need to ensure a secure supply of clean and affordable energy, not least because, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, we now need to think of Britain's energy security and not just of energy supply. He made that point himself in his own way.

The energy review published last year set out a wide-ranging strategy for delivering our energy goals, a strategy to which low-carbon technological innovation and expansion of renewable energy are central. Since 2002, about £500 million has been committed to help develop low-carbon technologies. Building on that, the Government will increase funding substantially for low-carbon energy research and development through the new Energy Technologies Institute. That public-private sector joint venture will have up to £1 billion in funding over 10 years. We have also created a new environmental transformation fund to help support renewables and other technologies through demonstration stage and beyond.

Our main support mechanism for achieving the necessary expansion of renewables is the renewables obligation, which the Government introduced in 2002. Under the RO, renewable generation has more than doubled, with the UK joining the small band of countries to have installed 2 GW of wind energy. We want to ensure that that increase continues, and we will publish our proposals to strengthen the renewals obligation further with the energy White Paper next month.

I turn to tidal power in the Severn estuary, which I know is of great interest to both Welsh and English Members of this House. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enabling us to debate the issue, albeit briefly. It may be useful for those not well acquainted with the subject to understand that there are differences between tidal barrages and the emerging tidal stream technologies being developed under the Department of Trade and Industry's technology programme. Put simply, tidal barrages are similar to the hydroelectric dams with which we are all familiar—it says here. Some of us are more familiar than others. I have certainly seen them in operation in Scotland, but I am still searching in Croydon.

Fundamentally, tidal barrages work by impounding a body of water which is then released through turbines to produce electricity. A variation is the technology known as tidal lagoons, which can be attached to the shoreline or located fully offshore but work on similar principles. Tidal stream technology, on the other hand, exploits the energy in relatively high-speed sea currents. Such devices extract energy from water flow—rather like a windmill, but under water. It is with the help of support provided under the DTI's technology programme that the UK is now well positioned as a world leader in the development of this new technology.

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Martin Horwood (Shadow Minister (Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Cheltenham, Liberal Democrat)

I would like to take this opportunity to support the request of my hon. Friend Steve Webb for a speedy reappraisal of tidal power in the Severn estuary. I apologise to you, Sir Nicholas, for arriving a little late for the debate.

Does the Minister agree that the tidal flow technology that he describes is actually more suitable for deep-water environments—in this context, further out in the Bristol channel—and could be provided in addition to lagoon or barrage technology, whichever route we finally decide is the most environmentally beneficial?

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Malcolm Wicks (Minister of State (Science and Innovation), Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

I agree with the broad thrust of the hon. Gentleman's comments. In distinguishing the different forms of marine technology, I was not suggesting an alternative to a Severn barrage. I was simply giving another example showing that, given that we are an island, there are different ways of exploiting the power of the sea.

We already have a good understanding of tidal power. The UK has spent considerable sums in the past—some £20 million in all—evaluating the potential for generating electricity from tidal barrages. The UK tidal programme ran from 1978 to its completion in 1994, and was the most comprehensive ever undertaken anywhere in the world. Several schemes were studied under the programme, the largest being a Severn barrage which would have a capacity of 8,600 MW and an output of 17 TW hours a year, providing some 5 per cent. of current UK demand from a renewable source and saving some 7 million tonnes of CO2 a year over its 120-year projected lifetime.

A Severn barrage would be one of the largest civil engineering projects in the world, and by far the largest single renewable energy generation scheme in the UK. It would involve building a 10-mile long barrage between the Severn estuary and the Bristol channel just downstream of a line between Cardiff and Weston-super-Mare, and enclosing some 140 miles of coastline. I do not have time to go into great detail, but a project on that scale clearly would be complex. It would have numerous advantages and disadvantages which we would need to appraise and discuss.

At the current estimate of £15 billion, the barrage would be expensive, and it could take as long as 12 years to build and commission once a decision was made to proceed. However, as well as providing 5 per cent. of our electricity, it could bring additional benefits such as a reduction in the likelihood of increased flood damage in the Severn region, and an estimated 35,000 jobs at the peak of construction.

A barrage would have to comply with a wide range of environmental legislation, as the hon. Member for Northavon implied. The Severn estuary is of national, European and international nature conservation significance, and has been afforded the corresponding levels of legal protection. It is designated as a Ramsar site and is a special protection area under the EU habitats directive. The estuary comprises a series of sites of special scientific interest and is in the process of being designated as a special area of conservation.

The scale of environmental changes that would be introduced by a barrage would be very large, and, with the loss of some 65 per cent. of the inter-tidal areas, there is no doubt that it would have a major impact on Severn estuary ecosystems. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point that we could argue to and fro. There are ecological benefits as well as disbenefits, and that is part of the complexity of and interest in the subject.

The energy review recognised the potential benefits of tidal power schemes but also the environmental concerns that a Severn barrage would raise. We therefore committed to a major £400,000 study, which is under way. It is being led by the Sustainable Development Commission, which is working with the DTI, the Welsh Assembly Government, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the South West of England Regional Development Agency.

The SDC is the Government's independent advisory body on sustainable development. One aspect of its role is to engage in understanding what members of the public and stakeholders believe is the best way to solve the problem. Given its role and expertise, and the complexity of the issues, the commission is well placed to carry out such work.

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Steve Webb (Northavon, Liberal Democrat)

Will the Minister clarify the kind of output that he expects from the SDC? Is there a danger that it will say "Yes, this is a really good idea, we must do more work"? Is there not a danger that we will get just another review? What will clinch the decision?

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Malcolm Wicks (Minister of State (Science and Innovation), Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

Let me continue with where we are on the study. Not only will the study consider all aspects of and options for tidal power in the Severn estuary and, more widely, the UK, but, importantly, it will help provide us with a much better understanding of the public position on the acceptability of any Severn barrage development. The SDC is undertaking a major stakeholder engagement and public consultation exercise—perhaps it could draw on the hon. Gentleman's experience—which includes a national survey and several regional public and stakeholder workshops. A final report by the commission setting out its position and advice to the Government on tidal power is expected in July. It will serve to inform any future considerations.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is not just another study. It is a significant exercise involving the key players—agencies in England and Wales—and, with the public consultation element, will result in an important report. I hear what he is saying about just getting on with it, and his volunteering me to head forward, with his help, with my bucket and spade. However, given the complexity and the fact that it has been quite some time since the last proper study, it is not unreasonable that we examine the issue carefully, and that the Government consider the commission's report carefully.

Once again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enabling this discussion to take place. It has been a useful contribution to the debate. The Government fully recognise the contribution that tidal energy in its different forms—including the tidal resource potential that exists in the Severn estuary—could make towards our goals. Of course, he will appreciate that I cannot comment on the detail of the forthcoming energy White Paper, but I can assure him and colleagues that tidal power, including that in the Severn, will be covered in the forthcoming White Paper.

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Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield, Conservative)

I thank hon. Members for that most interesting debate. There are advantages to being in the Chair—one can actually learn something. The House is grateful to Steve Webb for initiating the debate and to the Minister for replying.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Two o'clock.