Fyson on ... how Severn barrage financial arguments are clouding the green benefits of tidal generation

There is something inherently absurd about environmental groups engaging financial consultants in an effort to prove that the government would be wasting money if it implements a major scheme that reduces carbon emissions and at the same time increases the nation's energy security.

But that is the nature of a commentary on the proposed Severn barrage commissioned by a group including the National Trust, the RSPB and the World Wildlife Fund. Normally, environment groups do not consider conventional finance, preferring instead to advocate some kind of environmental accounting to justify apparently excessive expenditure.

By arguing that other green technologies could do the job more cheaply, the group risks weakening the case for urgent investment in all major alternative generation modes available so the country can stand a chance of achieving 60 per cent emissions reduction by 2050. If the real objection is the degree of environmental change resulting from the barrage, groups should say so directly, but should at least be willing to consider mitigation and compensation measures.

Last October, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) showed the way by endorsing tidal power and the Severn scheme in particular. It argued that the tides could provide ten per cent of the country's electricity, with nearly half of that from the £15 billion project for the river, enclosing a 16km length of the eastern estuary. It accepted that there would be major impacts on the wildlife of the area, advocating a "compensatory habitat" package, and did not see EU environmental and habitat directives as insuperable problems.

The SDC is partly to blame for the new focus on cost because it ventured to suggest that government, not the private sector, should fund and control the long-term future of the Severn project. Its case is that only the government could borrow at the favourable rates required to keep the project's unit costs lower than other forms of green generation. A public venture would avoid private sector corner-cutting and enable the scheme to be better integrated into regional plans.

The Severn project has been debated for nearly half a century, ever since the Rance barrage was constucted in northern France. Having been ruled out along with nuclear energy in the 2003 energy white paper, it is now back on the agenda. Its green justification is unarguable. On its financing, however, only one thing seems certain - the longer it is delayed, the higher its capital cost will be.

- Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.


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