Heathrow Model Could Bring Power to the Severn

It’s a large scale infrastructure project with huge national significance that excites passionate debate for and against.  It is a key strategic planning decision that has been kicked around between politicians, the private sector and environmentalists for years, titillating engineers and blighting properties. 

I could be describing Heathrow expansion plans, but all this applies equally to the Severn Barrage. _63906321_severnbarrageartist'simpression

The Barrage is to Wales and the South West what the Heathrow Third Runway is to the South East – a big, ugly and expensive project; but one that is arguably necessary to solve a perceived long term national problem.  For Heathrow the problem is the apparent lack of airport capacity for jet-setting executives to drop in and out of the tax haven we call home.  For the Severn Barrage it’s the UK’s reliance on expensive and carbon intensive fossil fuels to keep the lights on.

Successive governments have lacked the long-term vision to solve either issue. 

After more changes of direction than a delinquent dodgem, the government has now put the decision on Heathrow out to an external commission.  The Independent Airport Commission (due to report in 2015) will not settle the matter on its own, but it will make it very difficult for any future government to do anything on airport capacity without following its recommendation. 

Could we apply the same approach to the Barrage? 

We have seen another attempt to progress the idea dashed yesterday by the Energy select committee which found insufficient detail in the Hafren Power proposal to give it their backing. 

That’s hardly surprising.

It’s a massive challenge for any company to model the economic and environmental impact of an unprecedented £30bn project to the point of certainty.  The Treasury and Department for Transport have thrown their brightest and best at HS2 to do the same thing, and still the debate rages.   

But where does today’s decision leave Hafren and the Barrage? 

The Severn remains the UK’s most reliable untapped renewable energy resource.  Yet how can any company or scheme justify spending more money on investigating harnessing the power of the Severn when politicians are so unwilling to engage with an early-stage proposal like Hafren’s?

The answer could be a Heathrow-style commission.  It is now six years since the Sustainable Development Commission considered the options for the Severn, and endorsed the Barrage.  The SDC has gone, and so it seems has the chance of the Barrage making progress. 

Yet the other ideas considered by the SDC are still around (there may be more) and any of them could deliver significant renewable energy capacity from the Severn, something the UK desperately needs to deliver on its 2050 commitment.  The technology on lagoons in particular (which the SDC found unconvincing in 2007) has moved forward.

An independently chaired commission could refresh the analysis of 2007 and look in detail at the possible options and come up with a preferred solution.   Like the Heathrow Commission, the process could be separated from politicians and could straddle different parliaments as well as the Welsh and Westminster administrations. 

If this could happen by 2016, when the Committee on Climate Change will set out the carbon budget, and potential power sector decarbonisation target to 2030 there might even be a chance of a rare piece of joined-up thinking. 

The renewable power of the Severn is too great to allow the idea to be left wallowing in the political mudflats of select committee rejection.  

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