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The Severn Barrage: It's All About The Money

Pylon | 13.02.2009 13:41 | Analysis | Climate Chaos | Technology | Birmingham | South Coast

Do you really think that environmental arguments have a hope in hell's chance of stopping the Severn Barrage becoming reality? This is not about renewable energy, this is about money.

Over the past few years my views on renewable energy have been cooling, as the planet warms: I used to be an enthusiastic supporter of renewable energy, obviously in the face of the growing emissions from non-renewable sources, but also in that I actually liked (and still do like) the sight of lots of wind turbines. My views were somewhat tempered a couple of years ago by the fact that most of the largest investors in renewable energy (for the sake of clarity, I do mean “electricity” when I talk about energy here) were and still are the large construction and energy corporations..

In the last year or so I have realised that almost all of the talk about large scale renewable energy is a smokescreen. When politicians refer to the need for an increased amount of renewable energy they are (a) reacting to public opinion in order to look better, (b) reacting to international agreements that are forcing their hands somewhat, but most of all they are (c) ensuring that demand for energy can continue to rise, so long as the percentage of energy produced by renewable means also goes up. This is all about economics, and its the only reason that corporations invest in renewable energy and why, for instance, Shell pulled out of the project for the largest wind farm on Earth and pumped their money (and our natural gas and water) into the Athabasca Tar Sands instead. The oil price has dropped since the Summer of 2008, so you can bet that they and the other oil companies are starting to see wind, solar and (OH!) tidal energy as the latest cash cow.

So it’s the politicians riding the wave of corporate irresponsibility that ensures that energy policy is driven by the market; and it’s here that the Severn Barrage comes in.

The Severn Tidal Barrage is a scheme, or set of schemes, that have been designed to produce electricity out of tidal energy. The River Severn, which also marks part of the political boundary between England and Wales, has one of the largest tidal flows in the world, funnelling huge amounts of oceanic tidal energy into a gently narrowing and shallowing estuary. You can read all the technical details here []; but the point is that if that energy could be captured, it would be able to generate an awful lot of electricity.

It also so happens that the Severn Estuary is one of the most important wetland habitats in Europe and, to state the obvious, is part of a living river ecosystem that initially rises in the Cambrian Mountains, and is then joined by myriad tributaries and other rivers stretching halfway across England and deeply into Wales before emptying into the Bristol Channel and finally the Atlantic Ocean. This is not just a stretch of energy rich water - it is not just anything, for rivers are the source of a countless variety of natural ecosystems and habitats, yet are probably the single most abused geographic elements on Earth.

When, in January 2008, the UK Government announced that it had shortlisted five proposals to go forwards to the next stage of a tidal energy study for the Severn Estuary. Not utilising this source of energy was not an option; after all the UK’s consumption of electricity has remained pretty static over the last 5 years, despite the obvious need to dramatically reduce energy consumption, and all but one of the UK’s nuclear power stations is due to be decommissioned in the next 10 years or so. Notice that static figure: despite all of the posturing about the UK Government being at the forefront of reducing carbon emissions, the amount of electricity being used isn’t going down. The reason?

It does not make economic sense to reduce energy consumption.

Remember that. Now, the favoured project, according to the UK Government [], is the huge concrete barrage, stretching for 10 miles across the estuary. Observant readers will notice that on the press release the wording is skewed towards the larger Cardiff-Weston scheme, using such phrases as: “twice that of the UK’s largest fossil fuel power plant” and “it could generate nearly 5% of UK electricity.” Not exactly neutral wording, I think you would agree.

And of course it’s not neutral, because the construction of this project will require huge amounts of capital, huge amounts of energy, huge amounts of materials, huge amounts of backhanders…sorry, how did that last one slip in? I think it might also have something to do with the nature of the consortium proposing this scheme: The Severn Tidal Power Group. This organisation comprises the following members:

Balfour Beatty
Taylor Woodrow
Sir Robert McAlpine

Four of the largest engineering and construction corporations in Europe. For the last 10 years, and probably more, the construction industry has been effectively setting UK Government planning policy; most starkly illustrated by the presence of lucrative PPI schemes in major infrastructure projects. Patrick Kron, the Chairman of Alstom holds the Légion d’Honneur; effectively a knighthood. The group, as of 1999, also included Rolls Royce and Tarmac Construction. This a group that has serious influence on government policy.

Notice also that on the Severn Barrage Proposal analysis report, the funding for the study came not from English Nature, the Department for the Environment or any other body that might have objections: it came from “The Department of Trade and Investment, the Welsh Assembly
Government, the South West Regional Development Agency, the Scottish Executive and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Northern Ireland.” All offices whose interest is most effectively served by ramping up economic growth and the promotion of economic investment.

Don’t be fooled that a consultation is taking place: it has already taken place, in secret, and the only things stopping a huge barrage from being constructed are either a complete lack of money to build the damned thing, or (and this is down to you) ripping apart the links between the way the UK is run, and the financial interests of those who currently have the real power. Somehow I don’t thing wading birds cut any ice when it’s all about the money.

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  1. How about an update — onlyme