Tuesday, January 27, 2009


La falaise a Penarth, le soir, marée basse - Alfred Sisley.

I linked to this painting in a previous post. The coastal scene is not that different today, over a century later. The promontory in the distance is Lavernock Point, a few miles out of Cardiff, one end of the proposed Severn Barrage, linking South Wales to Somerset. According to a front-page article in today's Independent, this will harness the powerful tide of the Severn Estuary to provide 5 per cent of the UK's energy needs.

That's a lot. You can see why the Government are very interested indeed, and why at first glance it makes sense. A wonderfully green scheme. But. But. It will mean the destruction of natural habitats, marshes and mudflats, for thousands of migrating birds, fish and eels. Vague promises are being made that alternative wildlife sanctuaries will be found but the loss will be immense. There are other less damaging options under consideration for harnessing parts of the Estuary - such as the ones put forward by Friends of the Earth, who have come out strongly against the Barrage - but none that deliver this kind of mighty renewable punch. As the Indie says:

There is little doubt that a barrage would destroy more wildlife habitat than any other British construction project in modern times. The Severn Estuary, where the celebrated naturalist Sir Peter Scott founded Slimbridge, the wildfowl refuge which became one of the world's most famous nature reserves, provides an 86,000-acre feeding ground for wild swans, geese and many thousands of wading birds, such as dunlin, turnstone, oystercatcher and ringed plover, from all over Europe.

Under EU wildlife habitat laws, if the Government were to go ahead, it would have to find alternative compensatory habitat – mudflats and marshes – which might be as much as 40,000 acres, and which might cost anything up to £3bn.

But that is unlikely to hold the Government back, such will be the temptation to grab that massive 5 per cent renewable energy boost from a barrage – for in December ministers took on the enormous obligation, in an EU-wide deal, of sourcing 20 per cent of total UK energy demand from renewables by 2020. Twenty per cent of total energy (which includes heating and transport) means finding about 40 per cent of electricity from renewables – nearly 10 times the current figure of about 4.5 per cent.

The Herculean size of that task means the Government is very likely to go for the barrage, especially as the onshore wind industry is suffering strongly from the rise in the euro against the pound, meaning turbines made in Germany and Denmark are now about a third dearer than they were a year ago.

Dilemma. I know the area well and would grieve at its destruction. I am in favour of renewables and clean energy (who isn't?). I distrust the forthcoming Government consultation process and the hidden agendas behind it that quite probably mean that it will be a rubber-stamping of a decision already made. I am a supporter of Friends of the Earth. There is a long way to go and we are currently living through the mother of all recessions and the country may go bankrupt and there will be an election soon. But I suspect the Barrage will be built, eventually.


Cat B said...

We're facing so many very, very tough choices at the moment. There must be a better solution...but thanks for sharing—it's good to know even from so far away.

Dale said...

Oh, God. I hope not.

herhimnbryn said...

I think you are right, it will be built. I wonder if they will find alternative wetlands/marshes for the wildlife.....I wonder?

Relatively Retiring said...

I've been following the development of this project for some time, and, like you, can see both sides of it....more or less. This estuary is such a special place, and it is, paradoxically, exactly those special features which make it such a perfect site for both sides of the campaign. A true dilemma.

mm said...

Thanks all. So tricky, this one. No easy answer.