It’s an ancient and mystic source of power, but the tides off the Lancashire coast have barely been utilsed as a source of clean energy.
Of all the tidal power resource in Europe, 48 per cent is in Britain - and of that figure, half is right here in the North West.
Where countries like France and Denmark are forging ahead with tidal technology, Britain is lagging behind.
But that could be about to change, with a study funded by the North West Regional Development Agency claiming that barrages, across the Solway Firth, Morecambe Bay and the Mersey and Dee estuaries, could provide around half of the North West region’s electricity needs and up to five per cent of the UK’s electricity.
There are environmental drawbacks and the cost is high but if barrages could provide other amenities besides power - such as by carrying new roads across the big rivers to link communities, marinas for tourism, job creation - then together with the sheer length of time these heavy projects will last, experts say they could be cost effective and, more importantly, will give a predictable and constant supply of power.
France took the plunge in 1967 with its Rance barrage at St Malo in Brittany and has more than recovered its huge outlay costs – producing enough electricity for 250,000 households and ending up pound for pound cheaper than nuclear.
The Hendry report is very positive, not just for lagoon power but also for other tidal projects
Off the Lancashire coast, plans have been mooted for a barrage between Southport and Lytham and across the River Wyre near Fleetwood. The government’s interest in the huge Swansea tidal lagoon project earlier this year following a report by Charles Hendry has boosted hopes in the county that funding might be found for Lancashire projects.
Lancaster University’s professor of energy engineering, George Aggidis, an expert in hydro power generation, said Hendry had huge significance for Lancashire and the Fylde coast which was perfectly placed to become a centre for power generation and, if companies were swift to act, a centre of expertise and skills training.
He said: “I was present at the start of the Swansea scheme which began five years ago on a blank sheet of paper in my office.
“We have worked closely with the people behind it. The Hendry report is very positive, not just for lagoon power but also for other tidal projects.
“Wyre’s barrage is a much smaller scale project with a smaller number of turbines and a shorter distance to span between Fleetwood and Knott End.
“Britain has the second highest tidal range in the world, second only to Canada where the Anapolis Royal project is, and we have 48 per cent of the European resource in the UK.
“The majority of that resource is on the west coast, with 50 per cent in Wales and 50 per cent here in the North West.
“Tidal energy is very exciting for a country like the UK. We are at the end of the pipeline when it comes to oil and gas, especially since the North Sea supplies are now in decline, so if we want to increase our energy security tidal can be a significant contribution to the energy mix.
“This kind of energy project will still be working in 120 years. France had the first, near St Malo, which has been operated successfully since 1967 by EDF.
“I sincerely hope this report encourages the Government to progress swiftly to the next step and begin the development on the first project.”
He said the Swansea project had momentum and, if established successfully, a second at Cardiff could be even bigger generating as much power as the nuclear stations at Heysham 1 and 2 put together.
But he said there was such an overlap between lagoons and barrage that Wyre’s barrage could be seen as a pioneering project to kick start the industry.
He said the triple regulated turbines would allow the power to be kept at a more constant level reducing the difference between peak flow and low flow which significantly increases the efficiency.
Although initially expensive, tidal had further advantages such as being entirely renewable and clean and would still be a resource for our children and grand children.
With the heights of the tides being affected by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun the rate of power could be calculated for thousands of years to come allowing energy consumption and production to be accurately relied upon.
It could co-ordinate with other renewable sources such as wind and solar to meet demand high spots and combines with pump storage facilities could prevent a drop in supply.
“We could generate a significant part of the UK’s electricity here in the North West. The industry is likely to develop around the area of the first project.
“The UK has 48 per cent of the whole of Europe’s resource and could capitalise on this.
“We have a history of being at the start of new technology and then letting others take over such as with wind. The Danes are the leading country on that technology now. But if we do this right the UK could be export technology and skills to the rest of Europe.
“There are other advantages too. Barrages could act to improve transport links and there are tourism possibilities too.
“We have to look at this from a holistic perspective and factor in all the other bonuses. That would make the financial implications more attractive.”
Turning the tide: Local schemes
One man hoping to bring a scheme to Lancashire is Bob Long of Natural Energy Wyre, which has plans for a £340m tidal barrage across the River Wyre.
It would have a life-span of 120 years, using the twice daily tides to power turbines under water – enough to supply 500,000 homes. The company has held talks with various investors and has attracted interest from overseas.
He added that the local area would also benefit if the barrage went ahead from additional flood protection, jobs locally and a general lift to the local economy.
He said: “I believe we are giving the Government every incentive to look at the Wyre as the trailblazer in this type of technology.
“Ours could be the first of its kind opening up the benefits in terms of affordability, operating costs and general understanding.
“The low-head technology turbine generating system we would employ on the barrage is tried and tested and guaranteed by the biggest names in the business.
He said the design would not impact on the environment and wildlife as much as some people fear. He said: “During low and high water limits, known as “slack-water”, where no power is being produced, unobstructed water flow is encouraged through wide open sluices, providing easy access in both directions for all migratory fish species.
“In addition, tried and tested methods of fish passes would provide further opportunity for freedom of movement.
“Estuary Gateways, and tidal lagoons are emerging technologies, and UK is leading the way. Power from tidal range could collectively provide over a quarter of British power needs. A huge contribution to our green energy mix.
Another series of projects in the planning stages come from North West Energy Squared which wants to build barrages across the Mersey, Ribble, Morecambe Bay and Solway Firth.
Alan Torevell, of Manchester finance firm Dewhurst Torevell, and a member of the North West Business Leadership Group, said businesses in the region and politicians were starting to take notice.
He said they were looking at the Solway and Morecambe schemes first as they would deliver the most power – enough to power 2.5 million and 1.5 million homes.
He said: “It will take two or three years to get the project started and I estimate between 15 to 20 years to finish.
“The beauty of it is the power output it will generate All five of the Gateways would produce around 20 TW. One Heysham nuclear power station generates 8TW.
Mr Torevell said the Ribble Gateway would probably run from Banks to Squires Gate and generate enough power for 18,900 homes.
And the Wyre is in demand as a second bid for a tidal power scheme has been made.
Plans have been mooted for a £100m-plus “electric bridge” scheme which would create electric power using an alternative “tidal stream” method.
The group behind the scheme, Wyre Tidal Energy, believe the bridge enterprise will have less impact on the environment than a barrage and would be cheaper.