The Environmentalist Dichotomy – The Severn Barrage

Hello again. Before I start, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank snilon for giving me such freedom on this, her excellent blog. I hope to live up to her high standards.

So, the post… What would you say if I told you that we, here in the UK, are thinking of building a 10 mile long, £19bn, 8.5GW hydroelectric tidal barrage across an enormous river estuary? It would produce 5% of the UK’s total energy requirements, and it is reported that it would be the biggest renewable project in the world, if it were to be built.

“Fantastic!”, I hear you cry (and if you didn’t, I’ll just pretend you did). 8.5GW of free electricity, and no carbon in sight! All true. Then why are various environmental groups over here complaining about it, campaigning, as they do, against it?

Well, the building of this 10 mile behemoth would drastically affect local wildlife. We’re told that various bird species would have to either migrate or die, and fish species like salmon would have difficult breeding. In fact, 10000ha of land would be affected (10000ha = 100 square km, by the way).

So now what do you think? Do we a) build it anyway, or b) scrap it and look elsewhere? The problem is that in December 2008, Government set a target of having 20% of the UK’s energy supply come from renewables by 2020. This is a tall order, and the Severn Barrage, as it’s known (the river Severn being the river estuary to be dammed) would provide another 5% of this, by 2016.

For your information, the river Severn has the second largest tidal range in the world, after somewhere in Canada I believe. The range is 45ft, and so there is an extraordinary amount of energy available there. If we want to meet that target, we really want to extract that energy. Bear in mind also, that the energy from this one installation would provide more electricity than all other renewable sources in the UK combined, pushing the total from renewables up to about 8-9%.

So, oh torn environmentalist: what do we do? What would you do? We could argue that as we’re trying to prevent climate change, which would affect this habitat with rising sea levels and temperatures anyway, we may as well build it. Or, more importantly, should we as a race take more responsibility for the wildlife we can so easily dominate? Do we have a right to displace entire species from vast amounts of their natural habitat? Or, are we saving many more lives on the whole, and sacrificing a few for the greater good? Or are we just more important?

It’s a tough one, isn’t it? I’m curious to hear other perspectives on this, so please leave your comments below. If you’re interested in the Severn Barrage, information is widely available online, and also on my site, where I have written in more detail about the barrage itself, including a map!

We’re going to face many more challenges like this in the future. As we expand more and more into renewable energies, especially energy dense ones like hydroelectricity, we’re going to have to make difficult choices. Wind farms affect bird migrations and raise local ground temperatures, dams affect fish and bird life – should we just give up now, or should we leave our ethics at the door? I hope our elected leaders are up to the challenge and make the right decision, whatever that may be.

Thanks for reading.

9 comments on “The Environmentalist Dichotomy – The Severn Barrage

  1. snilon

    There is a reason that the citizens are left out of the loop. I assure you that it wasn’t the only option. It was however the cheapest to come in and cut down all trees that could possibly be in the way instead of hand selecting the trees that needed to be moved. Like most building that is done here in the United States…it is easier to clear the land in one full swoop and plant a few new seedlings than it is to work around the natural habitat and find balance.It’s cheaper and it’s faster but wrought with problems. These trees were considered Grand Trees and fell under the cities protection act. They were not even cut down and used for lumber. They were just bulldozed into kindling and left in mounds to be hauled away to the local dump.But we do digress. My point was that there should be some balance in our efforts to achieve our environmental goals.

  2. Michael

    Well that boils down to the concept of taking every reasonable measure first. I don’t think we do take every reasonable measure to protect the environment/wildlife etc before starting projects.It’s difficult for us, because we’re not privy to the entire decision making processes of those in control of such things. It’s quite possible that what happened in your back garden was the best option for the circumstances – that said, it was probably just the cheapest.

  3. snilon

    The real issue is the definition of acceptable losses. What is the point if we kill off what we are trying to save. And how do we determine it’s value. Is it any different than the argument of immanent domain? I lost over 100 Oak Trees in my back yard, so the city could put in a retention pond. The land already had a 1/2 acre spring fed lake that is now a 5 acre retention pond that receives the run off from the area roads. We lost wild life that after two years haven’t returned. Yes, the argument is that it was for the “greater good”, but was that they only solution available?

  4. Michael

    There are two ways of looking at problems like this:1) We assume that we are the most evolved form of life on Earth, the only one capable of altering our environment, and therefore the most deserving of continued existence. Thus, our continued survival is paramount, and so allow ourselves to develop and protect ourselves at the potential expense of wildlife.2) We assume that we are the most evolved form of life on the Earth, and thus we have the obligation to protect and support life which has not yet evolved to our level of development. We must then put the rights of other forms of life equal if not higher than our own.For the most part we, as a race, choose option 1. I think the way forward would be to try to act by 2), considering the welfare of other life, however we must remember that 1) applies when it comes to survival. Our survival in its current form, as exaggerated as it may sound, may be at stake if we don’t protect our supply of energy and prevent the Earth from changing so as to not support us and our civilisation. I think, therefore, that we should absolutely consider the impacts of our actions on wildlife, and take every reasonable measure to protect it. That said, once those measures have been taken, do we class any further damage caused as “acceptable losses”?

  5. Michael

    *Ok I think this proves I shouldn’t try to express myself coherently late at night…”I don’t love the idea of each region generating its own energy”clearly shouldn’t have a “don’t” in it. On behalf of my brain, I apologise again, and for spamming the comments!

  6. Michael

    Hi Jane, thanks for taking the time to comment! I love the idea of what you mention, and did a little digging… better source of energy could there be? These turbines would be completely out of sight and generating energy constantly. That’s already better than wind power right there!I don’t love the idea of each region generating its own energy in whatever method suits its geography best. Why shouldn’t Florida exploit such an abundant, local source of energy?The document I linked to explains…”Researchers from Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center will study theenvironmental impacts of the project, including its effect on marine life. The turbines placedin the water will not endanger marine life as they will be moving slowly and will also havewarning beacons.”which would solve the problem I discussed in my post. I think the reason we would be against such things here is that you can get far less energy out of a string of freestanding turbines as you can with a long barrier full of them. It might be worth proposing, though.Thanks for sharing!Michael

  7. June Cussen

    'Tis a puzzle. It springs to mind that it will surely be worse for the creatures should we fail to address global warming with this sort of alternative energy source soon. In Florida, a university in Miami is studyng underwater turbines. Wonder how this will go for the animals nearby. "Wave of Hope for FAU's Ocean Turbines"by Mike Vogel, Florida Trend magazine FAU’s ocean energy research center envisions creating energy via underwater turbines. The drawings of work at Florida Atlantic University’s ocean energy research center are tailor-made for the pages of Popular Science — brightly painted underwater turbines spun by the ever-flowing Gulf Stream, generating power for Florida. For at least the moment, the pretty pictures are wrapped up in red tape, however. FAU has a monitoring system ready to deploy — the first step toward an actual turbine and toward creating an ocean test bed where private companies can test turbines — but is awaiting approval from the agencies writing the rules in the new field. Florida has spent $13.75 million on the center for ocean energy technology at FAU, seeing Florida as a natural to lead in generating energy from the sea. Since 2005, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has issued 137 preliminary permits for entities hoping for power from sources as diverse as the Ohio River and Oregon waves, according to Celeste Miller, a commission spokeswoman. None has been issued for Florida, though two of 68 pending applications are for Florida — from a Maine company, Ocean Renewable Power, that wants to test a turbine at the envisioned FAU test seabed. The permits give the holders the right to study a site for three years. To move the Center for Ocean Energy Technology along, FAU in March brought in as executive director alum Susan Skemp. The 31-year veteran of Pratt & Whitney, who’s a past president of the mechanical engineering society ASME International and the federal ASME Fellow in former President Bush’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, says the center is working with other universities and private-sector players such as FPL and Lockheed Martin, hoping for approval to put the monitoring system in the water soon. Skemp says it’s essential to know exactly where to place a turbine and to understand its affect on the environment. The turbine can then be deployed — perhaps before July. Says Skemp, “We’re about testing and evaluating and proving out the concept and feasibility.”

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