A big decision is looming for the government on the future of tidal energy in the UK - and it could shape the future of the UK's clean energy mix for a century
As every history student will tell you, King Canute's doomed attempt to hold back the tides was not intended to become a byword for monarchical arrogance, but rather as a demonstration of the limits of executive power. Time and tide waits for no man, even a king.
Tidal power is a very different story. Engineers have known for years that the reliable power of the tides can be harnessed, but the exploitation of this enormous renewable resource is very much in the gift of governments. There is a growing body of evidence that large scale tidal power projects are technically feasible and could deliver ultra-reliable and predictable power at reasonable cost, but the sector has little chance of scaling without initial government support.
Tomorrow these crucial issues will get an airing with the publication of Charles Hendry's long awaited review of proposals to build a fleet of tidal lagoon projects in the UK, starting with a £1.3bn prototype plan in Swansea Bay proposed by developer Tidal Lagoon Power. The future of the UK's embryonic tidal lagoon industry, and by extension the prospective global industry, will depend on the government's response.
The scuttlebutt in Westminster is that Hendry is preparing to give the plans a broadly positive write up. The report is said to have been ready for a while and the many companies and experts Hendry spoke to were impressed by his command of the brief and his insightful line of questioning.
There is a rumour doing the rounds that Hendry was appointed to kick a tricky decision for the government into the long grass (or should that be long waves)? That would explain the apparent delay in publishing a report that is thought to be more positive towards the idea of building a tidal lagoon industry in the UK than the government was expecting or perhaps even hoping for.
There may be a degree of truth in this, but it is also worth taking with a pinch of sea salt. Hendry is not the person you would appoint to perform a government-approved hatchet job under the guise of an independent review. He understands the energy sector, was well-respected during his stint as energy minister, fully understands the need to develop clean energy and accelerate UK decarbonisation efforts, and has the decency and professionalism to ensure an independent review does precisely that. Moreover, if the government was unhappy with the results and wanted to bury them there was the perfect chance to do so over the Christmas break. Instead, a press conference has been scheduled and it looks as if the famously evidence-driven Business Secretary Greg Clark is willing to properly consider Hendry's recommendations.
Now, regardless of the precise details of the Hendry report (and no embargoed copies are being released to the press) the government has a big decision to make - one that could shape the UK's energy mix through to 2100 and beyond.
The reasons to kill the project are obvious and well-rehearsed. The current proposal being put forward by Tidal Lagoon Power is for a clean energy contract worth close to double current wholesale power prices for 90 years. The case for proceeding rests on as-yet-untested predictions that the cost of the technology will fall steadily with additional projects. But babies born today will still be paying over the odds for the Swansea Bay project when they are collecting their pension.
And yet the reason these arguments are well-rehearsed is they are precisely the same arguments that were unsuccessfully deployed against the Hinkley Point nuclear project. Moreover, the reality is that the counter arguments for Swansea Bay are far more compelling than the arguments for Hinkley Point.
First up, that proposed 90-year contract is only partially linked to inflation, meaning it averages out at a cost of £89.90/MWh over its life. The project, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, is already undercutting the £92.50/MWh on offer to Hinkley Point. Tidal Lagoon Power has delivered startling reductions in its cost projections since the project was first mooted, and there are good reasons to think this trend would continue with the five additional projects it has planned, ultimately delivering power that is cost competitive with the lowest cost forms of renewables.
Even if the headline cost appears high, the relatively small scale of the 'pathfinder' Swansea project - enough power for around 150,000 homes, means the overall impact on bills will be much lower than Hinkley Point and the project will have a limited impact on the budget for supporting clean energy capacity.
Secondly, the structure of the contract is still up for negotiation. If a 90-year contract is too much for the government to swallow (and you could see why it might be), the full negotiation phase is yet to come. Having learnt the lessons from the Hinkley Point talks, the government should be well positioned to push for the best possible deal for billpayers.
Thirdly, the energy promised by the portfolio of projects proposed by Tidal Power Lagoon is both large scale and predictable. The tides will always flow. The projects could deliver a tenth of the UK's power demand for over a century with no carbon emissions and in an entirely predictable profile, offering real benefits to the grid in a world where energy storage technology starts to play an increasing role.
Fourth, like most renewable energy projects Swansea Bay has the potential to be built relatively quickly. Tidal Lagoon Power reckons first power could be generated as early as 2022, and it is fair to say that while it is not a small undertaking from an engineering perspective the risks are considerably lower than those associated with a nuclear reactor.
And then there are the sizeable, economic, industrial and jobs benefits, not to mention the considerable export opportunities. The projects are focused on coastal communities that stand to benefit massively from the inward investment and are being led by a British firm, backed by a mix of international engineering firms and UK-based manufacturers. This week Sheffield Forgemasters and GE joined with around 20 other firms together employing more than 42,000 people, writing to the FT to argue that "we have at our fingertips a brand new sector that will create a multibillion-pound industry, provide tens of thousands of jobs across the country and create a significant local supply chain. All of this before we even think about the massive potential as a British export technology".
For a government about to tout an industrial strategy, a decarbonisation plan, and a new vision for UK export post-Brexit, it is a compelling mix.
It is hard to see how a government committed to decarbonisation could approve Hinkley Point on the grounds the project will help trigger a new wave of nuclear innovation and clean energy cost reduction, and not support a Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon that promises to do precisely the same thing, only with the potential for ensuring the UK, rather than France and China, secure the resulting export benefits.
However, while the argument in favour of Swansea Bay is compelling that is not to say approval is simple.
The reality is there is no point in proceeding with the project without a clear sense that if it delivers as promised there will be room in the government's clean energy budget for the additional projects Tidal Lagoon Power has planned. These projects would obviously have to show they could be competitive with other forms of clean energy, but like offshore wind, biomass, nuclear, and other sectors their prospects rest to a large extent on the Levy Control Framework for the post-2020 period that the government is still yet to announce. The government's long-awaited and hugely important emissions reduction plan will also have to take some form of position on a portfolio of projects that promise to deliver a tenth of the UK's power.
Everything is starting to fall into place for an emissions reduction plan, industrial strategy, and March budget that should provide a clear vision for how the UK can become a global low carbon hub and cleantech-exporting powerhouse. That vision could and should release the power of the UK's tidal energy industry. Why would the government want to stand in its way?
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