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Explaining tidal lagoon power as hopes revived for Swansea Bay project

The £1.3bn Swansea Bay tidal lagoon power plant could be the first of its kind in the world, with the ability to create up to 2,000 jobs and generate enough electricity to power 155,000 homes

It started with a vision to harness natural power from the rise and fall of the tides – but a £1.3bn tidal lagoon power project has looked dead in the water in recent weeks.

The UK Government is reportedly planning to reject the proposal to build the world’s first tidal lagoon power plant in Swansea Bay due to costs.

There are still hopes it could make a U-turn, though, after the Welsh Government offered £200m towards its build – while there are suggestions that public pension funds could also be used to bankroll the scheme.

Even if the Swansea Bay project doesn’t reach fruition, the team behind the proposal have other developments in mind.

Here we look at how tidal lagoon power works.

 

How tidal lagoon power works

As there are currently no tidal lagoon power plants, Wales had hoped to be the first country to use the technology.

The power station would work by generating electricity from the natural rise and fall of the tides.

By capturing large volumes of water behind a man-made structure, it is then released to drive turbines – using the weight of the water – and generate electricity.

The plans involve a six-mile horeshoe-shaped seawall between Llandudno and Prestatyn with underwater turbines producing energy on the outgoing tide.

It is said to have the ability to produce energy to power 155,000 homes with a maximum output of 320 megawatts (MW) – while it could withstand 500-year storms.

The plant, comprising 16 hydro turbines, would be operational for 14 hours per day and create at least 1,000 construction and manufacturing jobs.

To date, £35m has been spent on project development through mainly private financing.

 

Tidal lagoon power
Swansea Bay, where the tidal lagoon power plant would be built

 

 

Swansea Bay first in a series of tidal lagoon power plants

In March 2015, it was announced the proposed Swansea Bay project – already part of the 2014 National Infrastructure Plan – would be the first of six in the UK.

There would be four in Wales and one each in Sunset and Cumbria, kickstarting a new industry for Britain.

Developer Mark Shorrock claimed they could generated 8% of the UK’s electricity for an investment of £30bn.

Each would require engineering on a grand scale, with the Cardiff lagoon potentially including 90 turbines set in a 14-mile breakwater wall.

Although these would be the first tidal lagoon power plants, numerous tidal power plants are already operational in oceans and lakes.

These include Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station, in South Korea; La Rance Tidal Power Plant, in Brittany, France; and Annapolis Royal Generation Station, in Canada’s Bay of Fundy.

 

UK Government has the final say

In January 2018, the Welsh Government offered to put over £200m into the Swansea Bay scheme, but the UK Government has the final say over whether the scheme will go ahead.

It was also revealed that during the Government’s deliberation, three of the companies in the supply chain for the tidal lagoon power plant went into administration, which could have played a part in their decision.

The project has caused some controversy and division between Westminster and the Welsh Assembly.

Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones said it felt like “another kick in the teeth” for the people of Wales after the UK Government also voted against the electrification of the train line west of Cardiff.

The project had the potential to boost the local economy by £11bn and separate studies have claimed it would create between 1,000 and 2,000 jobs.

Tidal lagoon power, Swansea Bay
Artist’s impression of the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon power plant

 

What UK ministers and the Tidal Lagoon Power team say

A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) refused to comment on whether the ministers would appear before the inquiry in June, but said the Government had a responsibility to reduce consumer bills.

It also pointed out the Swansea Bay proposal was “more than twice as expensive” as the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station project in Somerset, which was approved two years ago.

“Any decision on the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project will have to represent value for money for the UK taxpayer as well as the consumer,” the spokesperson said.

“However, we have committed to continue exploring all of the possibilities and challenges in considering a proposal that – as the first minister of the Welsh Government pointed out – involves an untried technology with high capital costs and significant uncertainties.”

A spokeswoman for the Tidal Lagoon Power project team told Compelo that reports the scheme is not going ahead remains hearsay and has not been confirmed.

But if it is true, it said it’s willing to work with the government to find a solution.

“We have repeatedly offered to meet BEIS Ministers and have not been given the opportunity to do so,” the spokeswoman added.

“We are therefore blind with regards the department’s intent on timing or content of any announcement.

“The Government’s Industrial Strategy looks for homegrown and cheap power and that is what tidal lagoons offer.

“The unit price of power from a pathfinder project at Swansea Bay need cost no more than the unit price of power from Hinkley Point C, which has already received Government backing.

“The first full-scale project to follow at Cardiff offers nuclear-scale capacity but for 88 times less subsidy than Hinkley.

“All major parts will be manufactured in the UK, allowing government to buy British power stations in addition to those it buys from the French, Chinese and Japanese.

“We look forward to learning from government what would be an appropriate unit price for both the pathfinder tidal lagoon and the full-scale tidal lagoons it allows to follow.”