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Will Howie Turning the tide of energy policy

It is some time since I last wrote about energy policy in this column. Two considerations bring me back to it now. The first is the Government's commitment to cutting back carbon dioxide emissions by 20% below the 1990 figures by 2010. Leaving aside my natural scepticism about such targets, this is a formidable ambition. The second is a report that the environment Royal Commission is urging the Government to discontinue the use of all fossil fuels by the middle of the next century.

Most readers will remember that I think the best way of moving in either of these directions is through a greatly expanded nuclear power programme. I know, of course that nuclear power is not widely popular and that it poses serious problems, especially in the matter of waste disposal. The Lords science and technology select committee has been looking into that for some months and will possibly come up with some sensible suggestions by the year's end.

Although it would be the best route to achieving these aims, I do not expect my views to be adopted either by the Government or the public at large. So, what else can be done?

There is a popular, and somewhat sentimental, groundswell in favour of windmills, or wind farms as they are quaintly known. And why not? Something for nothing is always appealing. Unfortunately Ian Fells, of Newcastle University, has pointed out that trying to get even 10% of our electricity in that way would need 26,000 wind generators each at least 60m high. That is no answer, and another sweet dream withers away in the face of reality.

One feasible and realistic way of helping the Government to reach its targets has been in the air for some time, although it has more recently been largely forgotten. That is the Severn Barrage. Getting power from the tides is every bit as agreeable an idea as getting it from the wind or the sun, and it is time for interest in the barrage to be revised.

Earlier this year Christopher Harding, Frank Gibb and Steve Taylor presented the case to Margaret Beckett, then at the Department of Trade & Industry. Beckett is somewhat set in her ways, as her views on proportional representation show, but she has since been replaced by Peter Mandelson who does not flinch from big projects, as the Dome indicates. Perhaps the new minister should be pushed.

The delegation represented the Severn Tidal Power Group, which has been developing the project since 1984. The group comprises Balfour Beatty, Sir Robert McAlpine, Tarmac Construction, Taylor Woodrow, Alstom and Rolls Royce Power Engineering: that is six of Britain's leading power engineering and construction companies. Five years ago, STPG suggested a full financing study should be undertaken under the umbrella of the Private Finance Initiative. Unfortunately, the previous Government stopped funding tidal research without having the benefit of that study. The project should be revived and STPG is anxious to do it.

But is the Severn Barrage feasible or is it just another bright idea, the time for which is past? It would be one of the biggest construction projects in Europe, and I believe that it is not only feasible but is essential. It would create the same sort of excitement in the construction world as the Channel Tunnel did and would be just as useful.

The barrage, running roughly from Cardiff to Weston Super Mare, would be 16km long, carry a public road connecting the M4 and the M5, cost about pounds900M and have an installed capacity of 8,640MW - more that four big power stations.

It must be a good idea even if it takes seven years to construct.

Of course, the barrage will be denounced by environmentalists and other worthies. But STPG claims that the barrage would provide environmental advantages which are at least as great as the disadvantages feared by its opponents. For instance, over 200km of coastline in the barrage basin would be protected from storm surges and any rise in the sea level. The protected feeding grounds for birds would also be richer. One bird however, the dunlin, will find life tougher because its prey will get bigger and harder to deal with. That is rough on the dunlin, but the price is well worth paying. Over to you Mr Mandelson.

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