UPDATE – U.K. panel backs government ownership of 8,640-MW Severn tidal

The United Kingdom’s Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) issued a report October 1 backing development of the 8,640-MW Severn Barrage tidal power project, but urged that the government own the project to protect environmental and social interests.

Secretary of State for Business John Hutton announced September 25 that a feasibility study would begin immediately of developing the giant tidal project on Severn Estuary between England and Wales. (HNN 9/26/07) Using conventional hydroelectric equipment, the project would generate an estimated 17 terawatt-hours per year to supply 5 percent of the U.K.’s electricity from renewable sources.

SDC estimated the project would cost about 15 billion pounds (US$30 billion). It said a government-led project would be cheaper to fund and would avoid the risks involved in privately run energy projects.

“This will not be comfortable territory, but we believe that a publicly owned approach is essential for a sustainable, economically viable Severn barrage that reduces the risk to taxpayers,” it added.

SDC said its poll of public opinion showed 58 percent of people across the U.K. were in favor and 15 percent were against a barrage, which could take seven years to build and last for 120 years.

In addition to government ownership, SDC said the project should comply with European directives on wildlife habitat and must not divert the government away from wider action on climate change.

In 2003, a report by engineering firm Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd. said the scheme — which was shelved 16 years earlier as uneconomic — should be reassessed as it would help the United Kingdom meet its targets of cutting emissions of carbon dioxide that many scientists say contribute to global warming.

�This is a truly visionary project, unparalleled in scale, potentially generating 5 percent of the U.K.’s electricity from renewable sources,� Hutton said. �As we undertake this work, we must understand the true environmental, social, and economic impacts of such a project. They are potentially considerable. But so, too, is the challenge of climate change.�

The funnel-shaped estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world at more than 14 meters.

In addition to examining project effects, the government said the study would cover the potential for other tidal power sites in the United Kingdom.

“The building of such a barrage would be a huge engineering feat, comparable with some of the world’s biggest construction projects,” a government statement said.

Carbon-free power is essential to help Britain meet its goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. However, some conservationists say the local damage caused to birds and fish by such a barrage would outweigh the wider benefits.

“There could be much better ways of harnessing the Severn’s power, and the feasibility study should examine tidal lagoon and tidal stream schemes which could cost less, do less damage, and generate more energy,” said Conservation Director Mark Avery of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

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