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24 Apr 2007 : Column 265WH—continued

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
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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 the Member for Bristol, West (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.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I call the Minister to reply to this most interesting debate.

1.44 pm

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Malcolm Wicks): 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 the hon. Member for Northavon (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.


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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
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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.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I would like to take this opportunity to support the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (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?

Malcolm Wicks: 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
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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.

Steve Webb: 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?

Malcolm Wicks: 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
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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.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): 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 the hon. Member for Northavon (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.


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