PLANNING for a £15bn hydro-electric barrage across the Severn needs to “start in earnest” to ensure the project does not stall, Welsh Secretary Peter Hain said last night.
In a government-commissioned report to be published later today, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) is expected to back the idea of harnessing tidal power, but warns that the financial costs of the barrage project are likely to be high.
Business Secretary John Hutton has already announced a detailed feasibility study into the idea, which is opposed by some environmental groups who fear it could destroy important habitats.
The commission’s finding and Mr Hain’s comments coincide with a new report by Friends of the Earth, arguing that the barrage would block the development of other schemes that would be both more economically viable and environmentally friendly.
The proposed hydro-electric barrage would be one of the largest civil engineering projects in the world, running from Lavernock Point in the Vale of Glamorgan to Brean Down in Somerset.
It would take more than a decade to build, and could generate as much as 5% of the UK’s energy needs.
There is support from the idea from Mr Hain’s Wales Office and from the Welsh Assembly Government. Mr Hutton has described it as “truly visionary”.
Mr Hain told the Western Mail “Climate change is the greatest challenge facing this country and the global community and, if Britain is to play a leading role in meeting this challenge, projects such as the barrage cannot remain ambition forever.”
The feasibility study announced by Mr Hutton – itself a multi- million-pound project – should concentrate on the larger barrage idea, Mr Hain suggested, rather than on an alternative, smaller barrage further upriver, an option which is favoured by Friends of the Earth.
Mr Hain said, “The announcement last week that the government will now start work on the feasibility of a Severn Barrage is a huge step in the right direction, and now needs to start in earnest.
“It is right that we have a two-stage approach to the study, ensuring the study is transparent, meticulous and conclusive.
“The study must be wide-ranging and consider all the options, but I am fully committed to exploring the full potential of the Cardiff-Weston Barrage.
“We must act fast to consider and implement alternative energy sources, and I hope to see this work undertaken as soon as possible.”
Mr Hain will travel to the barrage site this morning to view the location, while the SDC is due to unveil its findings in Cardiff later.
One potential stumbling block is the status of the Severn as an EU Special Area of Conservation. The government believes the plan is compatible with EU rules designed to protect wildlife and marine habitats.
But the feasibility study is likely to spend much of its time ensuring the project is not open to legal challenge.
It will also look at the social and economic impact of the barrage – the Wales Office says it could create 40,000 jobs – as well as how it can be financed.
A private company has already sought planning permission to build a barrage, which could feature a road link as well as up to 200 turbines.
Whether the barrage should feature a road or even rail link is also likely to be a key feature of the study.
Feasibility studies into a Severn Barrage have been carried out in the past, and a parliamentary report concluded in 1984 that the project would be viable.
Meanwhile, the Friends of the Earth report released today urges the Government to consider tidal lagoons instead of a barrage.
The organisation has outlined six reasons why it believes this would be a more effective option, including:
A 60% greater capacity for generating electricity;
A lower cost of generating power;
Less impediment of freight trade in the Severn;
Less impact on wildlife habitats on the banks of the estuary.
Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Neil Crumpton, who wrote the report, said, “The £14bn Severn barrage would be a hugely expensive, environmentally damaging and legally questionable mega-project.
“In contrast, a series of large lagoons in the Severn estuary, possibly in conjunction with a Shoots barrage which could carry the London to South Wales rail link, could offer a far better solution to harnessing the enormous power of the Severn estuary.
“We recommend that a tidal lagoon demonstration scheme, which could be built with private money right now, should be given strong political support before more time and taxpayers’ money is wasted on yet another Severn barrage study.”
WWF Cymru warned last night that government approval for the Severn Barrage project could open a “Pandora’s box” of developments that would threaten natural habitats.
“WWF urges the government to consider more economically viable and sustainable alternatives to the proposed Severn Barrage which could deliver a comparable amount of energy,” Morgan Parry, the head of WWF Cymru said.