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Why the lack of fuss about tidal power schemes?

News that plans for a massive, 70km2 tidal lagoon off the coast of Cardiff have moved forward this week surely have to be seen as seismic step forward for the engineering profession. We at NCE are very excited. And we really don’t understand why everyone else isn’t too.

Submission by developer Tidal Lagoon Power of a 400-page environmental impact assessment scoping report on the Cardiff scheme to the Planning Inspectorate for its may not on its own be that seismic. But the context around it really is.

Tidal Lagoon’s plans for Cardiff would see it build a lagoon capable of generating between 1,800MW and 2,800MW of low carbon electricity to power every home in Wales throughout its 120 year life.

That’s a serious amount of renewable power generation.

And it’s economically viable too, with studies showing that tidal lagoons of this scale produce power at a cost comparable to nuclear and fossil fuel generation.

Tidal Lagoon Power seems to be doing everything right. Its plans for Cardiff are built on its pioneering Swansea Bay

swansea barrage

Tidal Lagoon, a scheme which had been developed to establish a scalable blueprint for the sector.

It has drawn on some serious engineering expertise in the form of Atkins and Costain to ensure it is buildable and it is now fully designed, fully-funded and just awaiting a planning decision - and that’s due in June. Construction could start straight away.

And all being well the Cardiff scheme could be under construction just three years later - in 2018.

And that’s not the end of the aspiration. Tidal Lagoon Power has early feasibility studies underway for four other full-scale UK tidal lagoons at Newport, West Cumbria, Colwyn Bay and Bridgwater Bay.

Together, the national fleet of six lagoons could provide a hefty 8% of the UK’s total electricity needs for 120 years.

So why aren’t we hearing much noise from the industry about tidal lagoons? Do we doubt Tidal Lagoon Power’s engineering? Is it a broadly held belief that lagooning water to capture energy from the tides a bit heavy-handed?

Or do we doubt the business case? Do we doubt Tidal Lagoon Power’s ability to negotiate the “strike price” - that tortuous government mechanism which determines how much a generator is allowed to charge for its energy - it needs?

Or is it more cynical than that? Do we simply prefer big nuclear power stations, with all that concrete and steel to be lumped about in constructing them? Lots of tried and tested and engineering there, and then lots, lots more in maintaining and ultimately decommissioning them.

If it’s the latter - and I suspect it might be - then it is a real shame.

Engineering is about shaping a better world, and genuinely renewable energy such as tidal power has to be a big part of that.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

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