RENEWABLE ENERGY:

Private U.K. group tries to relaunch mammoth tidal power project

LONDON -- A plan declared dead nearly three years ago to build a damlike hydroelectric structure across one of the United Kingdom's biggest river estuaries to generate billions of watts of clean electricity has been resurrected to the excitement of some and the horror of others.

The proposal, definitively rejected by the current government in 2010 on the basis of projected environmental damage and the cost to build an 11-mile concrete structure across the mouth of the River Severn between south Wales and southwest England, has been revived by what was until six months ago almost a private club of players.

Hafren Power, created in August 2012 from Corlan Hafren, which was itself only set up in 2010, has a handful of shareholders and no trading history. But it proposes to raise £25 billion ($39.5 billion) to build the so-called Severn River Barrage, which it says could be generating 5 percent of the United Kingdom's electricity within 12 years.

To sweeten the deal, the company says that it wants no government money and that its plan is far less environmentally damaging than the previous large-scale barrage proposal. That was deemed, after extensive studies between 2008 and 2010, to be the only economically viable way of harvesting clean power from an estuary with the second largest tidal range in the world: almost 46 feet.

On the other hand, the company wants the government to devote a chunk of parliamentary time to pushing through the necessary legislation to back the project as well as guaranteeing it electricity prices for 30 years -- pointing out that for at least the 90 years after that, its power output would be cheaper than any other sources.

"This project is of enormous benefit to the U.K. and to the economy of the Southwest and Wales. It is a project the like of which I have not seen in 10 years," said Labor lawmaker and former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, who quit his front-bench opposition post last May to front the proposal. He testified before a cross-party committee of parliamentarians at a public hearing earlier this month.

Big jobs project ruffles some feathers

Hain, who said he had no financial interest in the plan but who is on a committee of experts set up by the company to promote its proposal, said the barrage would go a long way to solving some of the country's most pressing problems, including cutting carbon emissions, boosting renewable energy output, helping energy security, creating jobs and invigorating the local economy.

Hafren says construction of the barrage would create 20,000 jobs, with an additional 30,000 following as a direct result -- although the figures are widely disputed.

But wildlife groups, which actively campaigned against the last barrage proposal on environmental grounds while backing the principle of harvesting energy from the river, said the latest plans went nowhere near satisfying their objections.

"The changes would be fundamental, the habit loss substantial," Kate Jennings, head of conservation policy for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, told the Environment and Climate Change Select Committee hearing.

She said that although Hafren said its plan would involve far less loss of crucial -- and legally protected -- intertidal mud flats in the estuary that are both home and a vital migratory feeding point for millions of birds, it would still mean losing more than 25 percent.

Not only would a greater area of equivalent land have to be found nearby by the company and set aside under European Union laws, but experience has shown that many years would be needed for these new areas to become established and stabilized -- assuming they could be found in the first place.

Hafren has said it will make £1 billion available for this.

The bird protection group also argues that the change in the current in the heavily silted River Severn induced by the barrage, which would stretch from the Welsh capital, Cardiff in south Wales, to the resort town of Weston-super-Mare on the north coast of southwest England, could have disastrous consequences for erosion and flooding in the area.

Shippers and fishermen are skeptical

But if the bird fanciers' feathers were ruffled by the Hafren plan, their response was tame compared with that of the fishermen who say the barrage would acutely disrupt the major migration of salmon that takes place to and from rivers off the Severn estuary every year and kill many of them on the way. Fishing generates millions of pounds each year for the Welsh economy.

Hafren says the 1,026 turbines that would be built into the barrage would be fish-friendly, with relatively low tip speed allowing the fish to easily pass in both directions without harm.

"A lot of the arguments put forward by Hafren Power are nothing more than spin," said Martin Salter, national campaigns coordinator for the Angling Trust and former Labor parliamentarian. "Claims that these turbines are fish-friendly are absolute guff."

Declaring himself to be in favor of nuclear power as a clean alternative to the "old" barrage technology, he said, "All the evidence shows that this proposal drives a coach and horses through all the environmental legislation that this, and the last, government signed up to."

Salter told the committee the migrating salmon, genetically unique to the area and accounting for about 25 percent of salmon originating in the United Kingdom, would, like the wading birds, therefore have to be relocated. "No one has ever tried to relocate migrating salmon on this scale," he added.

Environmentalists were not the only ones attacking the proposals, details of which have been kept deliberately sketchy while the company quietly lobbies government for its backing. In fact, it was only a demand from the committee for evidence that forced the company to bring its plan into the open.

Managers of several major ports on the Severn estuary that would be upstream of the barrage also voiced their annoyance at having been kept in the dark and skepticism of Hafren's statements that shipping delays into ports such as Bristol would be minimal.

Plans for the barrage include sea locks in the center to allow the passage of even large ships.

Some government interest, but details remain foggy

"The loss of 1 meter of high water would mean many ships would not be able to access the port on 80 percent of the tides," Bristol Port Co. CEO Simon Bird told the committee, adding that the slowing of the current would mean more sediment and require much extra dredging.

"Bristol would lose business to the continent, from where cargoes would come back to the east coast in smaller vessels. That would represent a net economic loss to the U.K.," he argued.

Hafren says it has already signed up a team of major engineering and architecture firms, and the project appears to have whet the appetite of Prime Minister David Cameron, who has asked his ministers to look again at the plan. Meanwhile, many former protest activists have been strangely silent. Once-vibrant websites lie dormant, and phone calls go unanswered.

"People are not quite sure how seriously to take this because of the lack of detail. There seems to be nothing to support many of the claims such as the turbines being fish-friendly or that there will be a lot of new jobs or how long they will last," said Alun James of WWF Cymru, an environmental group.

The government said in 2010 that there seemed no reason to review its previous rejection until 2015. Political observers speculate that with internal tensions over climate change and the overstretched national budget, the Hafren proposal could tick a lot of boxes on the grounds of zero direct cost to the government, while at the same time making a major -- albeit slightly behind schedule -- contribution to efforts to cut carbon emissions.