Severn Barrage


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The Severn Estuary has the second largest tidal reach in the world.  The gravitational pull of the moon causes huge amounts of water to flow in and out of the estuary twice a day.  If only we could tap that power in some way…

Tidal power is infinitely renewable.  It’s a bit like wind power in that it really does seem that we can dip our bucket into this well of power and its potential is huge and never-ending. So I say let’s get on and find the right bucket!

There have been plans for a Severn Barrage for well over a century – although they have mostly been rather vague plans rather than specific ones.  The most enduring idea has been to build a barrier from the English side of the Severn, just south of Weston-super-Mare, at Brean Down, across to the Welsh side of the Severn at Lavernock Point, via the island of Steep Holm.  This would represent a 12 mile wall with holes in it where water flows would drive turbines which would generate power.

Other barrage sites, both upstream and downstream are mooted, as is the idea of sticking a road link on top of such a barrier which always tends to muddy the already cloudy waters of the estuary.

The idea of a barrage has resurfaced again and it’s interesting that its price tag appears to have doubled in the two years since the last idea was knocked on the head – now a barrage would be a £30bn project whereas just over a couple of years ago it was a snip at half that amount – ha ha!

With an English father and Welsh mother I tend to talk about the Severn as joining two nations rather than separating them but there is a slanging match, or debate, developing across the divide.  Liam Fox, Conservative ex-Minister and MP for North Somerset has grave worries over the plans recently announced by Peter Hain, Labour ex-Minister and MP for Neath.

In Fighting for Birds I discuss, briefly, the Severn Barrage and predict that it would be an idea that would come back – and it has, rather quickly.

Martin Harper writes a good blog on the subject and Martin himself was fully and deeply involved in the arguments over this basic idea last time around.  It’s not just the RSPB and WWT who are against this barrage, many other groups view it with dismay from anglers and fishermen who depend on migratory fish such as salmon, lampreys, eels and shad, to surfers of the Severn Bore and the Port of Bristol (would you want a wall in the way of your ships?) and thousands of local residents (wh0 fear increased coastal flooding and massive disruption of their lives from the construction process).  But you should be concerned too – the consortium involved in this new vague plan want your money to start the project off.

Big flashy projects like this attract flashy politicians like Peter Hain.  Once the details of this ‘plan’ are examined I have confidence that its claims of  job production, energy production and environmental friendliness will be shown to be exaggerated and its costs, environmental dangers and risk of delay in construction will have been played down.  So it is with many large construction projects from the Dome to the Channel Tunnel.

Yes the tidal power of the Severn should be tapped, but how it is tapped requires rather more thought than a new version of a Victorian scheme of a big wall with turbines.  Let’s get this right because getting it wrong would be an environmental, economic and social disaster.





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35 Replies to “Severn Barrage”

  1. Is this not another piece of "sad commentary on the hijacking of the environmental movement by carbon alarmists. CO2 alarmism has done huge damage to the environmental movement, and thus to the environment itself" [Willis Eschenbach].

    Nobody knows whether the increased CO2 in the atmosphere will cause dangerous warming, there is certainly no evidence that it will. The met office has just revised their future projections for the next 5 years downwards, meaning, if they are right, that there will have been no upward trend in temperature for a period of 20 years. How come, when CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by over 10% in that time?

    We see so much environmental damage from policies designed to head off this unproven threat, whether it be biofuels, windmills or habitat destruction, but as important is the huge distraction that it is from the real environmental threats to the planet including over fishing, fishing bycatch, habitat loss or oceanic pollution, but most of all delaying the human race getting its population under control. Poor countries procreate much more rapidly than rich countries, many of which are now stable. Increasing the cost of energy delays the wealth generating capacity of the third world, thereby causing them to continue to expand their numbers.

    Now that we can have fracking, with virtually no environmental downsides, it even generates a lot less CO2 than coal or oil, why do we need to destroy this wonderful place in the Severn estuary?

    Oh, and one last thing – more CO2 means plants grow a lot better, which means that things that feed on plants do better, so everything does better. This is a huge environmental plus.

    1. Dick I agree with much of what you say. There is no positive undisputable link between CO2 levels and global warming. The figures which used to show a link between CO2 levels and temperature increase, failed because there was an unexplicable time lag which shouldn't have been there. It could even be possible to interpret the figures to show that global warming is driving higher CO2 levels.
      Now with an apparent decrease in global temperatures over the past 10 years does this not mean that the widely publicised 0.6 degrees C of global warming can now be negated ? Give it another 10 years and everyone may be saying that we are heading for an ice age once more, which is what the figures showed in the late 1970s. We should also consider that next year will produce very high levels of solar activity and how this may impact on earth temperatures.
      This thing about CO2 scaremongering and exploitation of environmental wildlife resources is also happening on the Solway Firth where another barrage is proposed . It seems to me that some of the syndicates involved in such projects are quite happy to proceed with their feasibility studies aquiring an awful lot of government funding in the process.
      No one seems to mention hydro electric schemes and with all of the present rainfall this could be a good option. There is a hydro electric scheme in Glen Strathfarrar, Scotland which makes quite good use of a highland valley. There are several unobtrusive dams along the river and yet the Old Caledonian Pinewoods which forms part of a National Nature reserve there is thriving. Cars have been banished from this valley making it idyllic for cyclists and walkers.
      Surely there must be much untapped potential for hydro electric on the west coast of Scotland and if not here, then what about arranging to import hydro power from Norway?

  2. Not sure I agree with much of what Dick says but the quote at the top is spot on. As we have been here before you would think that the proponents of this barrage would know and understand why on environmental grounds it is and will remain an absolute no no.

  3. Thank you for another informative blog Mark,all cleared up now for myself as there has been lots of things promoting a barrage.

  4. 'Huge environmental plus' for plants my a**e Dick!! Bigger, more competitive plants will do better than small ones that will be swamped out (like nutrient pollution or adding fertilisers) and vegetation impoverishment will continue to get worse than it has already become - especially grasslands and habitats on poor soils, mountains etc. Yes there are lots of those unwanted impacts on biodiversity etc from the green energy industry, but denying all the evidence for anthopogenic global warming and climate change, and going full steam ahead with fracking is not the way to deal with those!!!

    1. Ralph
      1. Given the enormous variation in CO2 levels in the evolution of life on earth, who is to say that the pre-industrial level was optimal? Where is the evidence for the scenario that you paint? I would "speculate" that there would be rather more winners than losers. For one thing, we will need less land for agriculture, leaving more for wildlife.

      2. What is the "evidence" for dangerous anthropogenic warming? If someone can point me to some evidence that I can understand, then I will change my position. CO2 already blocks the escape of a high percentage of long wave radiation. If you double it, all it will do is to block a further same percentage of the small amount that now escapes. This is called the "logarithmic effect". It is not long before you can add as much CO2 as you like, and it will make no difference whatsoever to the temperature.

      3. Why is fracking not just brilliant?

      1. It's the speed of recent warming, accelerated melting of Arctic ice, earlier and earlier phenology of many many species, northwards shift of many species, more frequent and extreme droughts, hurricanes, precipitation, geographical shifts in climate, good correlation of rising global temps with CO2 emission levels, and above all the overwhelming agreement amongst the mostly independent researchers and scientists involved in gathering all this evidence. Etc etc etc etc. There are papers and articles galore on all of these things. Fracking is another subject and another big environmental concern for lots of reasons best not discussed here!

        1. Hello Ralph,
          I was hoping you could do better than that.
          1. I agree there has been some warming as evidenced by some of the things that you mentioned, but where is the evidence that it is caused by CO2?
          2. There is no evidence of increased hurricanes, precipitation or drought.
          3. The correlation between CO2 and temperature in the last 110 years is poor, while the CO2 has steadily increased, temperature increased until the 30's during a period of relatively low CO2 emissions, it then decreased until the 70's while CO2 steadily increased,, it then increased steadily until the 90's and it has been flat ever since, and the met office says it will continue like that. In paleo climate, there is a good correlation between CO2 and temperature, except the changes in temperature precede changes in CO2, so the causal effect is the opposite to what one would suspect.
          4. Consensus amongst scientists means very little - it is their evidence that I would like to see.
          5. I agree that fracking is another subject.

          One more question for you, first take a look at what Burt Rutan and Matt Ridley have to say:

          They can articulate my case a lot better than me.
          Can you point me at anything that makes the opposite case so clearly?

          1. In answer to my last question, this debate is hot of the press:

            This is one of Al Gore's supporters doing the best job he can debating someone who questions the Anthropogenic Global Warming case.
            Who would you say won the debate?
            [It lasts 59 minutes and is not the best quality audio video]

          2. Not now I cant as I'm literally about to go away for 2+ weeks. After that I'll see if I have the motivation to get into this any deeper or not - probably not! Meanwhile check these especially the 3rd 4th and 5th. All the links on the 6th and final one might keep you going for 2+ weeks!

          3. PS Consensus among scientists does not mean 'very little' Dick - it means they have assessed all the data / papers etc., and collectively arrived at scientific conclusions based on hard evidence that have 'passed' the probabilities test. Why do you think you alone can do better???

          4. Hi Ralph,
            There was no reply button on the reading list you gave me, so I will reply here.
            1. Every item on your list gives evidence that climate is changing. No one is questioning this, it has been doing so since the beginning of time. Where is the evidence that recent change is caused by CO2? As before stated, not even any supposed correlation between CO2 and temperature supports this and there is very little more radiation that CO2 can trap. Sorry, computer models don't cut it.
            2. The question of 'consensus' in climate science has been throughly debunked.

        1. He might, as his efforts at the Cooper's craft were so leaky.

          But there's always the next limiting factor following on behind

  5. The Government should set up an innovation challenge for the Severn to extract the most amount of energy - the best design wins seed money. The objectives should clearly be set out - needs to be sustainable, not increase flood risk, enable fish to migrate and ensure exisiting transport can function and be as cheap as possible etc. Why they are transfixed on coming up with the answer before they have gone trough this process smells fishy. The only people that would benefit would be consultancies and large developers. Is that where the fishy smell is coming from.

    Here is my idea - instead of having a barrage have a large number of smaller turbines over a larger area - I think that designers can improve on the present underwater turbines. Surely that way energy is extracted over a much larger area and would enable shipping channels etc to be left alone.

  6. It's interesting how wildlife concerns regularly bump up against 'green' issues, the tired old question of save the planet from global warming without harming our flora and fauna. I dislike the idea of the Severn Barrage but then again, after reading the efficiency reports from wind farms, I dislike the idea of wind turbines. This means that I'm left with a choice between solar energy or nuclear power, which will scar the earth for thousands of years to come.

    Good conservation has to be about balance. Sometimes we have to accept that there will be casualties to something in saving others. It's a pretty silly idea to want to 'save' the glorious Severn wildlife only to lose it again as the water rises through global warming.

    1. "It’s a pretty silly idea to want to ‘save’ the glorious Severn wildlife only to lose it again as the water rises through global warming."

      I certainly don't want to 'save' the Severn wildlife as currently it doesn't actually need saving, it is doing very well thank you. It will only need saving if some idiot agrees a scheme that causes the water to rise permanently by blocking it with concrete.

    2. Hi Connor,
      It is a pity there is such an emotional aversion to Nuclear. The 2 major "disasters", Chernobyl and Fukoshima have actually caused a tiny amount of loss of life if you put it in a broader context. Anyway we now know how to build reactors a lot more safely.
      In the long term, solar in the desert could be a good idea. A tiny amount of the Sahara could be deployed to generate all of Europe's energy. It might cost a similar amount to what it costs to bail out the banks, so it just takes some political will.
      But in the short term, why would you not support fracking. Although I do not believe in the disaster that is said to be CO2, if we switched from Coal and Oil to gas, then it would cause a significant reduction to the country's CO2 footprint. This has already happened in the US

  7. You're right, Cowboy but I suspect the true purpose of this scheme is to make it easier to build roads and houses in the countryside. Other options for harnessing the power of the Severn don't give you a wall that you can build a motorway on, do they?
    Btw, does anybody know what Peter Hain is getting to front up the pro-barrage campaign?

    1. "anybody know what Peter Hain is getting to front up the pro-barrage campaign?"

      Sponsored by Tango?

  8. "Hafren Power, have engaged with the RSPB and other environmentalists to address their concerns. Turbine design has been reconfigured to be fish-friendly and the ebb and flow mechanism to be used will enable the Severn estuary above the barrage to be maintained at a much more stable level rather than the massive rise and fall which makes it so harsh for the Severn’s fragile ecosystems. ..... The barrage would slow down the fearsome Severn tide, introducing more light and oxygen and therefore improving the water quality, attracting more fish which will support greater and more diverse birdlife."

    The above is a quote from Peter Hain's Severn barrage website. He cannot be serious can he? Surely it is the 'fearsome tide' and massive rise and fall that has created and made the Severn wildilife the valuable commodity it is now (and doesn't the tide bring in oxygen not take it away). I am also sure that the environmentalists concerns have not been addressed as it seems here.

    His website also says "Earlier this year he stepped down as Shadow Secretary of State for Wales to campaign as a backbencher for the building of the Severn Barrage" yet these pages of the website are still under a Labour logo.

    I have to admit to being biased here as I spent the early years of my life having a view of the Severn Estuary from my house, fishing and playing along its banks and can think of nothing more awe inspiring than taking my grandchildren to Lydney Docks and seeing once again the power and control that the river has over its surrounding habitat.

  9. Wouldn't it be a 'huge step forward for mankind' if, just for once, we stopped feeding our greed and started using less of the finite resources [and I include the natural environment as a finite resource] on this tiny planet. I couldn't even make a start on working out what percentage of their current energy use each customer in the UK would need 'not to use' in order to reduce the total usage by the 5% it is claimed the barrage would supply - but I suspect it would be possible.
    Energy is a bit like food - nationally we throw vastly too much away. What I don't understand is why anyone would pay so much for energy and food and then bin it.

  10. I don't know, Mark. Grandiose, expensive, inefficient, potentially catastrophic - seems to me Hain's proposal ticks all the boxes that often get management types all excited. Building a wall from Cardiff to Weston (especially one you can drive over) is just so much "cooler" than a collection of smaller projects, and on that basis I expect it'll be mooted over and over until some idiot green-lights it. Might be Egregious George, might be the 2 Eds when they take over in 2015. The only hope of killing it for good is to stun it with such heavy public opprobrium that it remains unconscious long enough to get the smaller projects in place.

    1. Scott- welcome and thank you. And I agree. I'm not sure that the local people have yet realised what this would mean for their local environment - such a massive building project would create jobs for sure, but alongside it creates an awful lot of dust, noise, traffic and disruption. from an english-side perspective - it's like extending the Mendip Hills for 12 miles across the Severn.

      1. I'm not sure anyone in WSM would notice anything going on around them, but there's something which is not being mentioned. Mud.

        Weston-super-Mud is famous for it, so is the beach at Brean, below which are several Chelsea Tractors, and possibly a B17. Scarcely a year goes by without an unwary person or three drowning while trapped in the gloop by their feet - indeed, Burnham-on-Sea has an RNLI hovercraft to cover these recurring emergencies.

        The mud is made from Wales and large parts of the South and West Midlands. Where is it going to settle, in the event of a barrage being constructed?

  11. Dick Newell's point of view is deeply and profoundly wrong on several different levels and epitomises the seductive techniques of the 'we're all right jack' generation which more than anything else (including CC) it represents. Isn't it ironic that the very same political view is attacking public services under the banner of financial deficit reduction ? Our cash problems can be remedied but the extent to which we are living beyond our environmental means is a completely different matter.

    There is a very serious issue over how we are tackling carbon reduction - it is indeed disastrous that we have got into an approach which means the remedies are often worse than the problems they are meant to solve - but simply saying 'so we shouldn't do them' is both wrong and goes against all of human history up to today: what we have to do is address the issues raised: we could have had conflict free onshore windpower and last time round in the Severn showed we could have if not conflict free, at least low-conflict technologies.

    If you want an example of how it can be done just look at the Government's woodfuel strategy for England which, in contrast to the bizarre distortions around 'big biomass' actually analyses all the factors, the resource, the consumers, the environment and reaches a win-win solution. Not possible in every case, perhaps, but certainly possible if some care and thought goes into what we are doing.

    There's a fundamental conflict here in how we do things: do we accept we're not simply going to beat nature into submission ? That short term speculators profits are not what matters most ? That the less powerful , whether countries or individuals, have some say in the sort of world we create or is might simply right ? Every one of these questions applies equally to all the points Dick Newell makes, not just to carbon.

  12. I do wish someone could explain to me why I am "deeply wrong" or why they cannot agree with "much of what I say". Which part of my argument is wrong?
    Please tell me where is the evidence, hard, real world evidence, that increased CO2 causes warming to dangerous levels? I will not contest all of the evidence that the temperature has changed, nor will I contest that CO2 has increased, nor that CO2 is a 'greenhouse gas', but where is the proof that one causes the other to a dangerous extent?
    I have done the decent thing and given my reasoning, why cannot AGW believers reciprocate?

  13. Dick
    Consider this: Soil organic matter is declining and consequently soils are increasingly less fertile, less supportive of microbial activity, have less water-holding capacity and are increasingly susceptible to compaction. We need to address these problems.

    And this: We must stop soils emitting greenhouse gases or catastrophic climate change will destroy the planet. We need to address this urgently or it will be too late.

    Which of these statements is the more likely to elicit public funding for resolution of these issues? And who would stick their heads above the parapet, having secured such funding?

    I like Tallbloke's Talkshop, especially the subtitle.

    1. I see your point Filbert. I also have some empathy with using the global warming scare to try to save the rainforests. However, any organisation, NGO etc. who uses false reasoning to justify some policy runs a huge risk of being accused of crying wolf, and so discrediting all of the good things that they might stand for. This is especially so with the global warming scare where the unintended consequences of the policies designed to head it off are so hugely environmentally damaging.
      I am still waiting for someone to give hard evidence that the world's climate sensitivity to increased CO2 is dangerously high.

      1. "any organisation, NGO etc. who uses false reasoning to justify some policy"

        Not needed - it's the Law. CCA 2008

  14. As one of the very many scientists who spent 2 years of our working lives on the Strategic Environmental Assessment last time around, I find it extremely depressing when you hear quotes such as “Research suggests that a barrage would reinvigorate the environment and protect declining species such as the Dunlin” (Peter Hain, May 2012). I've heard of political spin, but this is pretty much the opposite of what we found. I'd love to see the research Peter refers to, though I suspect the problem is that he has not done his research... If they want to make a case for building a barrage despite the environmental impacts that sound science has predicted then fair enough, but don't claim it will have benefits that it blatantly won't.

    It's depressing when people ignore science, isn't it?

    1. Lucy - welcome! Thank you very much for your comment. Peter Hain was a bit of a hero of mine when he was an anti-apartheid campaigner, even though he was trying to disrupt cricket matches, but it's a long time since I lost almost all respect for him.


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