We must ride the waves

Tidal lagoons must be part of the energy mix says Craig McMaster, Director for UK Infrastructure at MWH 

We are an industrious nation here in the UK; we have entrepreneurs, technical innovators and one of the most successful economies in the modern world. Why does such an industrious nation struggle to produce a definitive plan to ensure our future energy needs are secure? A single national plan defining the required energy generation mix would provide those entrepreneurs and technical innovators with a framework within which to invest and create the infrastructure we need.

During 2015 I wrote an article for Infrastructure Intelligence that suggested a long term energy vision for a UK free of fossil fuels, which included a nuclear and renewables mix enabled by grid-scale storage (namely, pumped storage hydro). I stated that the abundant tidal resource available around the UK should be harnessed and included within the renewables component of this future mix.

The entrepreneurs and the technical innovators are now ready to deliver a small fleet of both tidal lagoons and tidal arrays but it seems our UK Plan for energy infrastructure isn’t quite as ready to respond. The UK Government’s recent announcement to review the feasibility and practicality of tidal lagoons is sure to cast doubt on the future of the technology and its investment attractiveness. 

Certainly, the nation expects rigorous analysis and due diligence on innovative technologies like tidal lagoons to ensure tax (and bill) payer’s value for money, but surely within a forward looking and cohesive plan; not retrospective or reactive resulting in reduced energy security margins and reduced investor confidence. Our UK energy industry has progressed tentatively during recent years despite several policy changes such as; incentive removal for onshore wind, hydro, solar PV and removal of funding for carbon capture and storage. The UK’s onshore unconventional gas potential remains untapped and the slow progress of nuclear new build places ever greater risk on future energy security as aging power stations are decommissioned.

The concept of electricity generation from tidal lagoons, tidal arrays and tidal barrages has been considered for many years. We are after all, a group islands on the edge of a continent surrounded  by constantly moving water. It’s disappointing that the intent to invest and construct tidal lagoons should now be delayed or perhaps abandoned due to a lag in national policy and technological awareness. The predictability of tidal schemes is equal to most types of power generation and presents an irreplaceable form of clean, renewable energy that reduces variability and strengthens grid stability, thus enhancing base load generation. The UK is fortunate to have such an abundant energy resource surrounding our nation. For example, the River Severn has the 2nd highest tidal range in the world, an uncommon attribute that if harnessed could potentially provide more than 5% of the nation’s electricity supply. 

Value for money is an entirely valid consideration in any project that attracts an element of public funding or financial incentive mechanism. However, this consideration should be proactive and either precede individual projects or be developed in parallel.

A long term UK energy generation mix free from fossil fuel combustion is entirely feasible but it needs vision, courage, investment and consistent government policy. A low carbon energy combination of nuclear and renewables (enabled by pumped storage hydropower to manage variability and grid issues) is an achievable dream for a wealthy and industrious nation like the UK. 

Tidal lagoons are an ambitious and potentially important element of that energy vision and provides exportable expertise for UK plc. Let’s hope the government’s current assessment of tidal lagoons supports its implementation and leads to a clear and consistent energy plan for the UK.