The power of water

Swansea is a pathfinder for a national fleet of larger lagoons, matching the price of offshore wind with economies of scale. The fleet of proposed lagoons could supply eight per cent of the UK’s total electricity demand.

Just a few years ago, the future of tidal lagoon power looked rosy. It promised to make a new and important contribution to the renewable energy mix. An independent report for Government endorsed tidal lagoon power and its pathfinder project, Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon. But tidal energy has stalled. LDA Design’s Alister Kratt looks into why and explores what it reveals about the UK’s approach to infrastructure.

The Swansea Tidal Lagoon is planned to connect Swansea and the docks in the west to Swansea University’s new Bay campus and Crymlyn Burrows to the east. With its 9.5km U-shaped breakwater, or sea wall, built out from the coast, it can meet 90% of the region’s domestic electricity demand with its stable supply.

The tidal lagoon was masterplanned by landscape architects, working with engineers and marine specialists. It is envisioned as multifunctional infrastructure. The masterplan provides for dynamic new public realm along the breakwater and at the landing points and into the city centre, and creates a destination for coastal recreation. It can regenerate the area, including the redundant dockside. The scheme won a resounding 86% approval from the community, drawn by its social, economic and environmental benefits. With a breakwater life of at least 120 years, the lagoon is designed to last twice as long as a nuclear facility and five times longer than an offshore wind farm. The breakwater reduces future flood risk and acts as an artificial reef system, providing new marine habitats and beach and saltwater marsh environments.

The Government recognises the need to decarbonise energy generation at scale, yet in the UK, renewable energy still only provides around 20% of our daily needs. Swansea has always been a pathfinder for a national fleet of larger lagoons, matching the price of offshore wind with economies of scale. The fleet of proposed lagoons will be capable of supplying eight percent of the UK’s total electricity demand. So, why are we waiting?

A regional sailing centre was part of the vision for the tidal lagoon. Image - FaulknerBrowns
Off-shore visitor centre, Swansea Bay. Image - Juice Architects

“There are many ways to assess value for money. For tidal power, it could be in the context of its extraordinary longevity, generating electricity over a period of 100 years.”

Alister Kratt, director and Energy & Infrastructure lead, LDA Design

In 2017, an independent review for Government led by Charles Hendry analysed the strategic role of tidal lagoons as part of decarbonising the UK energy mix. Hendry endorsed their concept, and also Swansea, as cost effective. Yet one year later, the plans for Swansea were shelved by the UK government, on grounds of value for money. The discrepancy between Hendry’s advice and the Government’s decision comes down to cost being considered the primary factor in the delivery of zero carbon energy. While Hendry recognised the capacity of tidal lagoons to regenerate places, Government assessed the cost in isolation from the benefits.

It seems that investment in tidal power in the UK is being frustrated by the unnecessarily tight confines of political thinking and existing forms of economic modelling. The energy industry works with Contracts for Difference (CFD), the government’s main scheme for supporting low-carbon electricity generation, which means that those supplying energy benefit from a subsidised flat unit rate. This underpins the investment they need to make, and protects consumers from fluctuating prices. Such protection matters of course, especially given the pressing issue of fuel poverty, but – crucially – the present economic analysis for CFD pricing excludes the added value from any beneficial outcomes.

There are many ways to assess value for money. For tidal power, it could be in the context of its extraordinary longevity, generating electricity over a period of 100 years. It could recognise the value of a pathfinder project, the start of a journey. With value capture being such a familiar concept within the wider development market, the placemaking and regeneration value of the tidal lagoons could easily be recognised within a new hybrid CFD.

Is there a glimmer of hope? While the National Infrastructure Strategy failed to mention lagoons in 2021, it did however recognise that projects should be assessed in light of the economic, social and environmental benefits they bring. The Welsh Government is now starting to explore market responses to the concept of resurrecting the Swansea Tidal Lagoon.

However, the obstacles to delivering tidal power remain symptomatic of a bigger problem: a chronic lack of joined-up and ambitious thinking across the infrastructure sector. Too many projects are still pursued with blinkers on, focused on narrow outcomes that minimise risk but fail to deliver lasting, positive outcomes. Landscape professionals have a key role in turning this around, through masterplanning which realises the opportunities. This means encompassing the spatial, environmental, social, cultural and economic dimensions of the project.

In Sylvia Crowe’s time, when power projects were considered to result in the industrialisation of the landscape, it made sense that impacts and mitigation were at the front of our minds. We are in a different era now: power projects can be designed to support communities and the environment, and to deliver and define great places. Working with the natural environment should be a catalyst for resilience. Landscape professionals will be leading the way when they not only see the possibilities but express them in a vivid way.

This article by Alister Kratt first appeared in the summer 2021 edition of the Landscape Institute’s Journal, The Landscape of Power.

Lead image copyright LDA Design

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