DECC’s chief scientific adviser David McKay has given a positive reception to an Aecom proposal to build a visionary new canal that would help solve future problems of water supply, power transmission and sustainable transport.
McKay has distributed copies of the initial proposal – costed at £14bn for the construction element of the canal – to officials at the BIS, Defra and the Department for Transport.
Aecom’s idea is a multi-functional 24m wide canal, built with as few locks as possible, running from the Scottish borders to the London area. The firm is undertaking further studies to find the most cost-effective and beneficial route.
The canal would help to mitigate any future drought and also supply additional irrigation to the agricultural sector, by feeding Scottish water into existing waterways.
And as well as offering a sustainable alternative to road and rail freight, facilitating the movement of biomass fuel to the south, it could also carry High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) cables in special compartments, with the water providing natural cooling.
Aecom associate director David Weight first hit on the idea two years ago after London Mayor Boris Johnson, in a Telegraph article, floated the idea of reviving Pownall’s Contour Canal scheme to address future droughts.
Proposed in 1942, this was to be a 30m wide canal network following the natural drop in height from the Borders to the Midlands, used for freight transport and water transfer.
But Weight’s insight was to realise the canal would be perfect for current needs: the ongoing creation of a HVDC cable network to connect sustainable electricity sources with consumer demand.
These include plans to lay HVDC cables in the North Sea to connect Scottish hydro power to England, as part of a wider future international network linking hydro and geothermal power from Iceland, and solar power generated in southern Spain and Africa.
“If you’re building a canal, you could have more uses — it’s perfect for HVDC transmission,” said Weight. “Scotland will have abundant power on its doorstep, so how do we get it down to England? Laying cables in the sea is hugely expensive, but a secure compartment in the canal would be far cheaper and more accessible. The water would also be used to cool the cables.”
Weight also suggested that the canal could also be harnessed for a new generation of data centres, a burgeoning source of carbon emissions. Large fibre optic cable would enable data centres to be built in the cooler Scottish border, reducing cooling loads, while still fast-linked to the south-east of England.
The proposal clearly needs both political and financial backing to progress, but Aecom believes both are possible to secure.
“We think that unlike HS2, local authorities would be queuing up to have a canal going through their area,” he said. “As for funding, we’d anticipate a multi-stakeholder approach. There are many organisations that could either save money by using the canal or extract a toll for others to use it — for instance Scottish Power, Scottish Water, the National Grid.
“And there might be a possibility of using a form of Tax Increment Financing — taxing the increase in value from properties along the route. The canal would also be perfect for associated developments, such as eco-towns — the power and water are already there.”
He adds that the “economic multiplier” of constructing a canal would be high as there is no need to import skills or equipment from abroad, as would be the case with new nuclear build.
Aecom also proposes to build the canal in phases, with the first section running from Kielder in Northumbria to Leeds, costed at £3.4bn. The second phase would reach Derby.
The plan has drawn on the firm’s expertise in water and mechanical engineering, but Weight says there is much more work to be done. “We want to get to proof of concept stage, then we’ll do a range of further studies, for example on future water demand and agricultural needs.”
At 24m wide Aecom’s proposal is similar in scale to the Rhein-Herne canal in Germany. Photograph: Raimond Spekking