Monday, 29 September 2008

Severn barrage

So, I'm on a train on my way to London for some meetings and this evening will turn round and come back again. Doing a walkabout with the police tomorrow night, and Ed Balls is coming to visit some schools on Wednesday. (Actually I am no longer on the train... but I was when I wrote that. When are FGW going to get WiFi sorted on their trains? Even a decent phone signal would be a start, especially round Swindon, which is hardly a technological desert. And while I’m on the subject, shouldn’t people who want to talk to each other be banned from the quiet coach too?)

I was in the office this morning for a presentation on the Severn Barrage by a fisheries scientist from the Environment Agency, who is now working on climate change issues. It was fascinating. I now know all about tidal surges -vs- tidal streams, the mechanics of barrages -vs- tidal lagoons, and the breeding habits of shad and salmon, lampreys and elvers. Must admit, I hadn't realised quite how little the barrage would contribute to the UK's energy needs - about 0.6% [CORRECTION - THIS SHOULD BE 6%], though of course that depends on whether we manage to reduce energy consumption significantly over future years, in which case it could be higher. The figure most often cited is that the barrage could provide 90% of the UK's tidal power, which gives a bit of a misleading impression of its overall significance. It's estimated that for far less than the cost of building the barrage (c.£15bn for the most likely location) we could insulate all the homes in the South West and save as much energy as the barrage would provide. But in order to meet our renewables target - 15% by 2020, and we're lagging massively behind most other EU countries on that, except Luxembourg and Malta (which is historical because of our reliance on coal and North Sea oil) and our 60%/ 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 we may need to do both, and much more. (Interesting that both the reps from the EA said that they'd had to rethink their opposition to nuclear power in recent years). Based on today's discussion, I think that the scheme may fall at the first hurdle, in that the planning application won't meet the Habitats Directive criteria. But we'll see.

OK, over to you Glenn, Chris, Paul and the rest! But if you're going to suggest that in the future we'll be able to rely solely on renewables, I want to know what, when and where. Solutions, not slogans! And if you're going to say the solution is a massive reduction in energy consumption (which certainly has to be on the agenda), I want to know how you're going to get people to sign up to it. Carrot or stick? Incentives or regulation?


Paul said...

I thought the figure quoted was 6% not 0.6%

greeengage said...

George Monbiot's Heat gives quite realistic ways in carbon emissions could be cut by 90%. In terms of getting the public on board, carbon rationing's the way to go. It's fair, and it means people retain a measure of choice. So you can choose to take a flight, or do lots of driving, or heat your house to 23 degrees - but probably not all three.

SteveL said...

The percentage thing depends on whether you are looking at fraction of total energy consumption (which includes boatloads of oil for and gas burned at home) or fraction of generated electricity; a lot of our nation's Terajoules come straight from fossil fuels without going over the grid.

Regarding Nuclear (Fission) power, where is the uranium going to come from?
There may be lots of uranium ore out there, but if it takes more energy to mine and purify it than you get back, then the only people who will bother are those with "peaceful" nuclear research programs. Unless you are going to burn Thorium (as india hopes to), the only fuel in the long term is plutonium/uranium mix from sellafield. Making that is a pretty messy process.

Kerry said...

No, they definitely said 0.6%. Of course they could have it wrong.

Glenn Vowles said...

First things first. Get a proper energy strategy sorted. Assess all the technologies roundly/thoroughly.

Energy efficiency and conservation comes top of the list for cost-effectiveness, efficiency of carbon reduction and speed with which it can be implemented (Green Party policy is to insulate all homes free of charge, that way means testing is avoided and take up of insulation etc maximised).

Second for me is a range of renewable energy technologies, especially wind.(Prof Dave Elliot from the Open University has written in The Guardian that big renewables and big nuclear investment are basically incompatible, so that alone counts out nuclear for me). See:

Tidal energy is relatively low on the list of priorities for me and the best technologies for extracting the energy are likely to be either tidal lagoons or tidal stream turbines (a barrage is very unlikey to pass the tests set by the Sustainable Development Commission, is opposed strongly by both the Environment Agency and Natural England, is contrary to EU Directives and so all the green waffle from Govt is...well...waffle!!).

We could be discussing the details of nuclear, so-called clean coal and so on....

(Kerry: That figure should be 6% of electricity consumption not 0.6%, Paul is quite right)

Terry said...


Who gives a hoot about your green rubbish? People are facing hard economic times ahead, get your head out of the sand you fool.

Kerry said...

OK, I accept the 6% - tho' pretty sure that's not what they said because they also said less than 1%. I thought it was incredibly low.

Free insulation and more wind power doesn't get you very far, does it? What else?

Guardian link doesn't work by the way. I did try!

SteveL said...

@Kerry: the proposed Atlantic Array wind farm would do well, high power and good throughput. Availability is still patchy, but power good when the winds are blowing. We just need to be able to bring power ashore at Hinkley Point.

There are also alternative options to getting power from the Severn -the tidal lagoons- that would be less destructive, though they need a lot of building material from somewhere.

@Terry. When you consider that a lot of the immediate problems in the EU and US economies is triggered by oil costs, and that now the continental western europe is at the far end of a gas pipeline that Putin can switch off for "maintenance" they way he did for Estonia, I'd put having an alternate energy strategy pretty high up my list of priorities. It isn't as vote-winning in the short term as using a windfall tax on north sea oil companies to give a fuel rebate to the poor, but investing in decent post-North Sea energy sources is something to do sooner rather than later.

Terry said...


Thanks for reminding me why we went into Iraq.

Glenn Vowles said...

Terry: The Green Party policy of free insulation for all would be a great help to large numbers of people. It cuts bills fast in economic hard times! Govt has not gone half as far on it as they should have.

Kerry: Point is to start with energy efficiency and wind power as a top priority. Are you doing this? If you were fair in your summary of my comment you would have noted that I referred to a range of renewable energy technologies. Biomass, for instance by greatly expanding forestry, and biogas from anaerobic digestion, have great potential, especially if we build combined heat and power stations. How much is the Govt investing in these technologies?? Or have they got the technology assessment wrong and gone for 'solutions' from the past like coal and nuclear??

Its a great pity that the Govt has done so very little on efficiency and renewables over the last ten yrs, waiting eg for economic crisis to improve their efforts on insulation - we would not be so far behind other countries if they had. And we would not be so dependent on imported fuels. Is the Govt now offering free insulation to all?

Full details of Green energy policy here:

The comment about renewables and nuclear from the Open University's Prof Dave Elliot said this about the 'genius' of Labour Govt energy policy:

It is good to see bold targets being set for renewable energy (Cost of tackling global climate change has doubled, warns Stern, June 26). But it appears that there could be a conflict with the government's parallel commitment to greatly expanded nuclear power. UK "baseload" is about 20 gigawatts (GW), nearly a quarter of total UK generating capacity - this is kept available at all times and supplies all the electricity required at periods of low demand, like at night.

It is currently proposed that we build perhaps 20GW of new nuclear plant. In addition it is proposed that by 2020 we should have up to 30GW of offshore wind capacity and perhaps an 8.6GW tidal barrage on the Severn Estuary. Nuclear plants can't easily vary their power output to follow changing consumer demand patterns and are, in any case, usually kept running at full power in order to pay for their significant capital costs. At periods of low demand it would seem therefore that, in the absence of major electricity storage facilities, if wind or tidal energy inputs to the grid are available, the electricity from these, or any other renewables sources, could not actually be used.

Put simply, for much of the time, big renewables and big nuclear would be incompatible.

Professor David Elliott
Energy and environment research unit, Open University, Milton Keynes

Paul said...

DEFRA is pouring some millions into anaerobic digestion schemes as demonstration projects.

However all in the energy world is not good and I tend to agree with Glenn on this. We could switch to coal and nuclear but at what long and short term cost.

We need to maximise energy from wind, wave, solar and tide as well as looking at how we can make the best use of existing resources - e.g. waste - but not through EFW which is just a spin name for incineration which has terrible Co2 emmissions (people keep saying that its okay because it doesn't cause pollution - what they mean is smoky stacks, CO2 is not visible and is not considered as pollution in this way)

Clean coal - I am not sure what this is although it was mentioned a lot at the conference. have an image of people washing and polishing it. Opening a large coal plant without proven carbon capture technology is irresponsible.

Nuclear - apparently if a foreign country has nuclear power it means we can bomb them - I understand the plan is to use residual uranium from Sellafield to power a 100 years of nuclear energy. Still no effective plans to deal with the waste.

Nuclear Fusion (this is how the sun works combining hydrogen to produce Helium (an inert gas) and energy) power offers hope for production of clean energy but most scientists say this is 50 years away.

Empasis must be on reducing waste of energy (although as a physicist technically energy can not be wasted only convereted from one form into another but lets not fo there now - well Charlie Bolton might want to). We need more energy efficient everything , homes, offices, factories, cars, computers, mobile phones etc etc

Dr Alan Whitehead MP has produced a report published by SERA on energy without nuclear

Glenn Vowles said...

I thought you'd agree Paul. Problem is that the 'some millions' going in to technologies like anaerobic digestion should be much higher, possibly orders of magnitude higher. Coal and nuclear are a major diversion it seems.

SteveL said...

Power from Fusion is one of the great dreams of the cold war. For anyone taking the train to London, its why Didcot power station is so big: to power the Rutherford Lab "experiments". And that is what they are -experiments. Maybe the next experiment, ITER, will actually generate more power than is put in, but that doesn't mean they can go into production. They need to work out how to turn that excess energy into heat, while wrapping the tokamak with Lithium to catch the emitted neutrons and so generate Tritium (He3) to power that fusion core and any others. Without that ability to generate He3 from Li, you have to use up the existing He3 supply, which was mostly all generated during the cold war for thermonuclear warheads. There's enough left over for one or two more experiments, and after that: it had better be time to go live. More importantly, you'd better not bet your country's energy future on it working when the scientists promise. Wind has easy deployment, Tidal guaranteed power output at certain times a day, energy conservation the best ROI.

Glenn Vowles said...

Nuclear fusion is pie in the sky! Or should that be sun in the sky!

Kerry said...

My god, I've spawned a monster. Carry on boys, this is highly educational. I was particularly interested in the suggestion from Steve that "They need to work out how to turn that excess energy into heat, while wrapping the tokamak with Lithium to catch the emitted neutrons and so generate Tritium (He3) to power that fusion core". I am almost certain he's right. But isn't Lithium a Nirvana track?

Paul said...

I agree that we shouldn't say lets not bother with renewables because fusion is on the way, however I wouldn't call it pie in the sky either. Look at the extent to which technology has advanced over the last 50 years - who can say what will be possible in the next 50. If the large hadron collider produces results we could be on the way to a new technological age. In the meantime lets build some turbines

Glenn Vowles said...

Hmmm, but how much will the efficiency and effectiveness of renewables have increased in that 50 yr period (plucked from the air?) if we invest properly in them Paul? And wont we by then have built the low-energy cultures we need around the world that best science says is needed to fight climate change?? If we have not we are then likely to be in deep trouble according to the IPCC!! We must beware of looking to and being diverted off the right path by grand 'technical fixes'. Remember the great promise of nuclear fission was that the electricity would be 'too cheap to meter'! Now look where we are - the UK clean up bill for existing nuclear is estimated at £73 billion.

SteveL said...

I should correct a mistake. Tritium is not He3, it is 3H. I get confused as the lithium blanket round a fusion reactor would also generate helium. Fortunately for everyone, this is not an area I have ever been involved in.

For a really good analysis of the engineering issues the west has with going into production of Fusion, look at the Oil Drum. As far as I am concerned: solar power in North Africa routed north would be more cost effective and likely to work. It is a shame that the middle east countries that are currently reeling in the oil cash aren't investing in tomorrow's power supplies.

Paul N said...

Now that things are moving along on this (see ) perhaps it's time to re-open the thread.

The best thing to do about any solution on the Severn is to choose one and get on with it.

I think we should focus as much on reducing the need for energy, as for working out ways to generate it in a renewable manner.

So, where can we save ? Heating and transport for starters.

Heating - start buying your relatives NICE jumpers for Christmas, or more seriously, all new homes would have individual thermostats. Think about mandatory installation of ground source heat pumps in all new buildings.

Transport. Commuting long distances into work is mad. Put in schemes to encourage local working. Importing fresh vegetables and flowers by air is similarly ridiculous. Oh, and expanding air traffic capacity when we should be reducing flights is also not helping. Until electric planes or air ships come back in vogue, how about supporting the British tourism industry and taking a local holiday ?

At the same time realise that woods and forests are great carbon sinks, locking up billions of tons of C02. So how about planting some more trees, and by that I mean millions ?

A few random thoughts past my bed time !