SUSTAINABLE SEVERN – MAKING THE MOST OF THE ESTUARY

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SUSTAINABLE SEVERN – MAKING THE MOST OF THE ESTUARY

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Tony Whitehead, RSPB South West Regional Office

With the DECC Minister Greg Barker saying yesterday that it’s not at all realistic that a Severn Barrage Bill will come before parliament this term we think now is the ideal time for everyone to take stock and look anew at generating power from the Severn. We look here at the issues in advance of a major sustainable Severn Conference in April at UWE Bristol, organised by Bristol Port, Regen SW and the RSPB.

We are living in challenging times. We are struggling to kick-start the economy, we are facing climate change and we are losing precious natural resources.

No wonder, then, that many eyes are turning to the Severn Estuary to find some solutions. The Severn is blessed with an abundance of wildlife; with important and innovative businesses and with the potential of huge amounts of clean energy - if it can be captured sustainably.

Bristol Port, Regen SW and RSPB all have huge ambitions for the Severn. We believe that it can become an example of how to create truly sustainable solutions for the 21st century. We are confident that the estuary can provide a significant amount of the clean energy that the country needs - without compromising the internationally significant habitats or the existing economy of the area. Furthermore, we believe that, by encouraging the use of the Severn Estuary as a test bed for a whole range of tidal technologies, we can help develop a strong sector capable of competing across the world.

It’s a big prize - and one worth fighting for.

ENERGY

With the second biggest tidal range in the world, the Severn Estuary could play a vital role to help the UK generate massive amounts of renewable energy and reduce the impact of climate change.  It is estimated that up to 14 GW of clean energy capacity could delivered by deploying a combination of technologies to harness the tidal range, tidal stream, offshore wind and wave energy resources found across the Bristol Channel area.

As well as low carbon energy, new technologies could help to create jobs and economic growth for many companies based in the south west of England and South Wales, as the UK secures its position as a world leader in this exciting global industry.

The challenge however is to find a strategy to enable energy projects to be built whilst balancing the need to protect the environment and other users of the Severn Estuary. 

ENVIRONMENT

The biggest threat to the natural environment is climate change. Therefore it is critical that the UK produces as much energy as possible from renewable sources - as quickly as possible. There is now a much greater awareness that, without healthy ecosystems, it will not be possible to stabilise the climate. However, in choosing the different energy options, there is a need to minimise the impact on major natural systems, habitats and wildlife.

The Severn Estuary is extraordinarily rich in nature - providing extensive feeding and roosting sites for large populations of waders and wildfowl. It also has important populations of migratory fish species, including salmon and lamprey. The tidal flats and coastal habitats are sensitive to changes in tidal flows, drainage and sediment loss.

Whatever schemes are adopted to capture power from the tides in the Severn, there are real risks to the complex ecosystems in the Estuary.  However, finding an optimum blend of energy creation and natural environment outcomes has to be our goal.

ECONOMY

Both sides of the Severn Estuary are already home to some of the most exciting marine power companies in the world. There is an innovative mix of cutting-edge research and technology start-ups in the renewables sector. A solid supply chain, including some global leaders in energy consultancy, is supported by some of the best infrastructure in the country - an excellent rail and motorway network, development land and a number of ports including one of the biggest in the UK.

In a world hungry for energy, there is potential for the Severnside region to become a global centre for marine renewables - exploiting its natural resources, and a number of leading universities, to become a hub for clean energy innovation.

The prospect of a whole new generation of technologies, creating thousands of jobs over many decades, is tantalisingly close.

WHAT NEXT?

The idea of creating energy from the Severn Estuary is not new. It has been talked about many times over the past hundred years or so - yet nothing has happened - perhaps because most proposals have been too costly, too risky and too damaging.

It is becoming clear that the impacts of climate change are already being felt, and so the need to to move rapidly to cleaner, renewable forms of energy is urgent. We cannot wait.

There is a need to bring together industry leaders, local and national governments, environmental groups and economic development agencies to plan rapidly for and implement a sustainable future for the Severn. This is not a drag on development - it is about embracing it. It is about recognising the overwhelming need for clean energy and a vibrant economy and a resilient natural environment.

We believe that there are much more optimal solutions that do not compromise each other.  We believe that we need to move fast - creating a new momentum and a road map for action.

A sustainable Severn is the only future we can honestly provide. 

Many thanks to Bristol Port and Regen SW for the help in preparing this article

What do you think about a sustainable, energy-producing Severn? Do share you views and comment below

  • In short, you've left out a rather large stakeholder. The general public should have the right to be consulted in these decisions, given the strategic importance of the Severn Estuary, for wildlife and for people. Outreach and inclusion in future planning should provide a much healthier prospect for long-term success. We've challenging times ahead!