Politicians’ caution means construction firms are missing out and the UK risks missing its carbon reduction targets, says Stuart Murphy
They’ve been pounding British coastlines for millennia, yet our ancient tides could be our future. Clean, green and perpetual, tidal is hard to beat as a potential renewable energy source, and we are on the cusp of game-changing developments in tidal lagoon technology.
So, what’s stopping politicians and investors taking the plunge? Their caution means the British construction industry is missing out on big contracts, skilled job creation, and the chance to become global experts in an emerging green energy industry. Apathy towards tidal comes at a time when the UK is supposedly committed to achieving net zero by 2050.
Personally, I’m baffled. It seems tidal is the looming power giant that keeps being overlooked or side-lined.
The UK, Ireland, China, France, Canada, and Russia have long been mooted as having potential to harness tidal, all being blessed with suitable coasts, high tidal ranges, and vast river mouths.
We need a long-term, low maintenance infrastructural solution, and that cannot currently be delivered through solar, wind or nuclear
Because water is denser than air, tidal energy is more powerful than wind energy. Unlike wind, tides are predictable and stable. Where tidal generators are used, they produce a quiet, constant flow of electricity, without spoiling the surrounding landscape.
Engineers, including my team at TPGen:24, are working hard to improve the technology of tidal energy generators to increase the amount and constancy of energy produced. We are decreasing their physical impact on the natural environment, and finding the best ways for infrastructure developers, contractors and energy companies to earn a profit from them.
The Hendry Review (2017) set out a compelling case for ground-breaking tidal lagoon technology to harness the UK’s oceanic resource, stating: “Tidal lagoons would help deliver security of supply; they would assist in delivering our decarbonisation commitments; and they would bring real and substantial opportunities for the UK.”
Yet in the March Budget, there was no sign that tidal is being sensibly considered by the government. Disappointingly, the planned ‘green industrial revolution’ is limited to targeting investment in carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), hydrogen and offshore wind.
I believe the sad fact that the Swansea Lagoon project faltered risks pushing tidal further down the policy agenda. While Swansea fell victim to planning complexities, and concerns over short-term value projections, it’s shelving really should not mark the end of vital discussions around tidal.
As technology advances, tidal power will get increasingly cheaper and efficient. It’s true that tidal lagoon type plants require high capital investments, yet they can expect an asset life of at least 120 years, making them more durable and cost-competitive than other renewable technologies. Once built they are known for their low maintenance requirements.
A stark reality is that current infrastructure plans for renewables will neither meet projected electricity demands, nor achieve the UK’s ambitious carbon reduction targets. We need a long-term, low maintenance infrastructural solution, and that cannot currently be delivered through solar, wind or nuclear.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) calculates that worldwide renewable electricity production needs to grow eight times faster than the current rate to help limit global heating. The rising demand for electricity could require a total investment of $131tn in renewables by 2050, it says.
Let’s be bolder. If politicians consider the lifetime value of tidal energy investments, including what they will bring to UK Plc, and how sectors like construction and civil engineering can directly benefit, progress could get back on track.
Large infrastructure projects would create jobs and boost local economies, while demonstrating our technological and operational expertise and commitment to green energy, on the global stage.
And why not aim to export our tidal technology innovations to other nations? Many are searching for solutions to their own energy crises after all.
Francesco La Camera, the director general of Irena, has said the “window of opportunity” to achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement are closing fast. “As governments pump huge sums in bailouts and recovery, investment must support energy transition. It is time to act and countries can lead the way with policies for a climate-safe, prosperous and just energy system fit for the 21st century,” he says.
Tidal is our greatest, untapped resource, guaranteed to never run out. Excluding it from the renewable energy infrastructure debate is utter madness. It’s also a tragic missed opportunity for the UK construction sector.