The man with a plan to turn the tide at Fleetwood into electricity says he has been buoyed by a meeting with the government over the future for hydropower schemes like his.
Bob Long, managing director of Natural Energy Wyre (NEW), claims that the attitude of ministers towards tidal projects is “maturing”.
But the Fleetwood-born businessman admits that finding the first wave of funding for a £400m barrage across the Wyre estuary is proving “somewhat difficult”, because governments have previously focused their attention on other sources of renewable energy.
“The wind and solar industries enjoyed tremendous support during their early stages - all we are asking from government is for similar support, even at a lower level,” Bob says.
He was amongst dozens of representatives of the hydropower sector who recently met the energy and clean growth minister, Claire Perry MP.
Following the discussion, Bob believes Whitehall will no longer insist on marine energy matching the market price for wind power - something which he claims would have sunk his plan and the entire hydropower industry.
However, several financial barriers remain to getting the idea for a tidal barrage off the drawing board - not least the fear amongst potential investors of choppy waters ahead. Pension funds are the main source of cash for projects like the one proposed for the River Wyre, but they will only sink their money into a scheme if regulators conclude that the risks are not too high.
“In principle, the £400m isn’t difficult to achieve,” Bob claims. “[But] when you’re accessing funds destined for pensions, the Financial Conduct Authority makes sure that the money goes into safe investments.
“And until the planning consent is actually on paper, this would technically be deemed an unsafe investment,” he adds.
Planning permission for a tidal barrage - classed as a nationally-significant infrastructure project - would come from central government. But the process to obtain it is itself expensive - and with no guarantees of the outcome, there is a risk that enthusiasm for the project amongst investors could run dry.
“We’re fairly confident that we will be able to jump that hurdle,” Bob says. “When the government agrees that they are happy with this type of power production, the primary funding is going to be a lot easier to find.”
And the group hoping to harness the power of the Wyre estuary believes the collapse of a hydropower project in Wales could actually give their Lancashire coast hopes a boost.
Earlier this year, the government pulled the plug on a planned tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay, which had a price tag of £1.3bn. For Bob Long, the much smaller scheme proposed for Fleetwood is an efficient way of testing the technology and viability of tidal power generation.
“The Swansea lagoon required a barrier six miles out into the sea, whereas the span across the river [between Fleetwood and Knott End] is 600 metres. Here, nature has provided us with two sides and a back - we just have to compound it with a structure at the front.”
If or when the money flows into the Fleetwood project, the barrier could be operational within four years - with planning permission and construction each taking around two years to complete. NEW claims that the scheme could generate enough electricity to power 80,000 homes and businesses.
It would also result in the construction of a service road connecting Fleetwood and Knott End, which would be open to emergency service vehicles, but not the general public.
According to Bob, the tide has to turn in favour of tidal energy. “The tides are chronicled until time ends - we know when they are going to be there and we can plan our usage [accordingly].
“We cannot ignore the amount of God-given power on the west coast of Britain,” he adds.
WILL THE GOVERNMENT OPEN THE FLOOD GATES?
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “We are absolutely committed to ensuring our renewables sector continues to thrive through our Clean Growth Strategy and, by 2021, we’ll have invested over £2.5 billion in low carbon innovations.
“Since 1990, carbon emissions [have fallen by] 40% and we have established ourselves as one of the world’s leading nations in renewables and investment in low carbon technology.
“We recognise the potential of marine technologies and £90 million has been made available to develop these, but any proposals must demonstrate value for money for consumers and taxpayers.”
WINDERMERE ON THE WYRE?
Fleetwood West county councillor Stephen Clarke says he is less interested in the energy that could be generated by a tidal barrage than he is in its potential to spark the town’s economy.
“The river itself would have a permanent level of water [in it], which could be used for boating. You could have something like Lake Windermere used to be - with speedboats, yachting and sailing,” County Cllr Clarke says.
He claims that the existing marina at Tiger’s Tail could benefit from the dredging which would be required to be keep the barrage system free from silt.
But his ultimate vision is for the former docklands area to be lined with associated leisure facilities and also to attract businesses interested in using green energy to the nearby Hillhouse Enterprise Zone.
“Fleetwood needs major development and we need to get the town back on its feet - it is one of the most deprived areas in Lancashire.
“At the moment, there’s nothing and the town has no investment at all - this is definitely a way forward,” County Cllr Clarke adds.
STRIKE IT RICH? ONLY IF THE PRICE IS RIGHT
The viability of all energy projects depends on something called the strike price - that means how much it costs to generate one unit of electricity via a particular method.
In order to make new schemes viable, the government guarantees energy generators that if the wholesale cost of electricity falls below this break-even price, then it will make up the difference - for a set period of time.
Bob Long, of Natural Energy Wyre, says he sensed a change of tone about tidal schemes at an industry meeting with energy minister Claire Perry last month.
“Three months ago, in consultation with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, we were told that if we couldn’t get our price down to £57.50 per megawatt hour - which was the latest price for a wind farm - then we were wasting our time,” Bob says.
“Thankfully, the minister has now said that our project will be negotiable directly with government.”
The estimated strike price for electricity generated by a barrage in Fleetwood is £120 per megawatt hour (Mwh), compared to the current wholesale price of £45. The government guarantee would need to be provided for anything up to 35 years.
The strike price for the abandoned Swansea tidal lagoon project was £150 per Mwh, the planned nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset will cost £92.50 per Mwh and wind farms are expected to generate electricity at £62 per Mwh from the start of the next decade.
“ANOTHER NAIL IN THE COFFIN FOR FISHING”
Fleetwood fisherman John Worthington says a barrage between Fleetwood and Knott End would make life “even more difficult than it already is” for people working in the local industry.
“I’m sure they would put up our dock charges and then there are just the practicalities of getting in and out,” John says.
“Sometimes we would want to get out when the gates had closed and, if the weather turned, we might want to come in early. It would just be a lot of messing about.”
John, who has fished off Fleetwood for 30 years, says his previous experience of renewable energy schemes in the area has not been positive.
“The wind farms have already taken up a lot of the ground for fishing and we haven’t been compensated.
“This would just be another nail in the coffin for us,” he adds.
HOW WOULD IT WORK?
The scheme would see a concrete barrier built between the two headlands at Fleetwood and Knott End.
In tidal barrage systems, sluice gates open at low tide to allow water to flow into the river naturally. But when high tide is reached, those gates are shut to prevent the usual passage of water back out to sea.
Instead, it is directed through a series of turbines which then produce electricity as they are turned by the force of the water.