With the news currently focused on climate change protests, is it time to once again press forward with the Swansea Bay Barrage?
On the same day that the Commons voted on the £14bn Heathrow expansion, the government quashed plans for the £1.3bn Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project, which sought to harness the power of tides and turn it into electricity.
The project had the backing of the Welsh Assembly and local MPs and was expected to generate enough energy for 155,000 homes, as well as 1,000 jobs and ongoing opportunities for the tourism and leisure sectors.
The 320MW pathfinder project was due to provide a scalable blueprint for and expanded programme, opening up the option of a fleet of larger UK tidal lagoons to generate renewable electricity at a scale and low cost not seen before. Tidal lagoons that are feasible worldwide would be new targets for British technology to aim for.
British-made turbine and generator technology and engineering expertise will be at the heart of the project, seeding a new global industry with significant export potential for UK manufacturers. The project would facilitate the creation of two new manufacturing facilities to be built in Wales, one for machining and pre-assembly of turbines and one for heavy fabrication of steel components. Other major components will be sourced nation wide throughout the UK.
The government made the decisions on cost grounds, arguing the electricity generated wouldn’t compare favourably to other sources, notably a mix of wind and nuclear. However, critics of the decision claim the longer lifetime of the lagoon, with electricity potentially generated for 120 years, wasn’t considered.
Contrast the Swansea project, which has been discussed and now delayed – perhaps indefinitely – to the, less ambitious, Normandie Hydro project across the Channel, which has the full backing of the French government.
EDF Energy will soon have seven turbines testing the viability of the technology and providing power to 13,000 homes by 2020.
Other tidal projects in Russia, South Korea and Canada are progressing. Britain may have already lost the initiative, in this urgently need technology, to foreign competitors.
These decisions reveal issues with the concentration of political power and finance in the UK. Infrastructure should be apolitical and rise above party bickering and horse-trading. Would the tidal bay project have gone ahead with a Conservative government in Wales? We may never know. Should the devolved nations have more input in this area? Yes. Should the National Infrastructure Commission be given more power to influence long-term planning? Most definitely.
Dr Nelson Ogunshakin, the chief executive of FIDIC, believes that the long-term solution to political cherry-picking, lies in the creation of an equivalent to Germany’s KFW bank to independently make infrastructure investment decisions, working in close partnership with a beefed-up National Infrastructure Commission. Along with a greater say for regional authorities and the devolved nations. If this were to be achieved then we could see the emergence of more clarity when it comes to long-term infrastructure planning and projects which truly address structural needs across the country.
In the absence of any such system, we run the risk of projects in the national pipeline drifting until the political and economic climate is right. With so much uncertainty in today’s politics, we can simply no longer afford to wait.