Making waves at Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon
On the beachfront in Swansea Bay, Andrew McNaughton seems a world away from the profit warnings that forced him to resign as Balfour Beatty’s chief executive just more than a year ago.
“After Balfour Beatty I decided to take some time off, which was a pleasant release,” says McNaughton. “I took some time to think about what I’d do next.” That period of reflection has led him to south Wales, where he has taken on the task of delivering the UK’s first tidal lagoon into operational service.
The first of its kind in the world, Tidal Lagoon Power’s Swansea power-generation project won planning consent last month. By 2019 it could be creating enough green energy to power more than 155,000 homes for at least 120 years.
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The proposed £1bn scheme would have a 320MW installed capacity and will generate electricity from the rising and falling of the tide in the Severn Estuary. It will involve constructing a 9.5km breakwater in the bay to enclose a 11.5 sq km stretch of water. As the tide fills and drains this pool, 16 bi-directional hydro-generators will create electricity.
McNaughton had “many opportunities from all around the world”, he says, but became involved with the project through Tidal Lagoon Power’s chairman, Keith Clark, former chief executive of WS Atkins.
“I have known and worked with [Clark] over the years. He called and told me this is a project that I would enjoy, and that I’d get on with Mark [Shorrock – chief executive of energy company Tidal Lagoon Power].”
An experienced project manager, McNaughton project managed the construction of Terminals 2 and 5 at Heathrow, the widening of the M25, and in 2002, he won the ICE Civil Engineering Manager of the Year award for his work on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.
“Tidal Lagoon Power is a concept that can make a radical change. I will look back in 10 years and not say that we created lagoons, but that we created a new industry. Every person in the organisation understands the future legacy. That is why I became a civil engineer in the first place, to build communities.”
As director of construction for Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay since April, he is overseeing the technical development of this innovative piece of infrastructure, and will be responsible for delivering it into operational service.
On taking the job McNaughton said: “I am thrilled to return to the industry’s front line to oversee its delivery.” But speaking to Construction Manager, he now makes clear he is thinking on a larger scale, and is focused on the long-term programme of coastal energy projects at parent company Tidal Lagoon Power.
“This is not a step back,” he says. “I’ve joined because of the vision of Tidal Lagoon Power. We are building a new power company. Swansea Bay just happens to be the first [project].”
The UK has a commitment to deliver 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, under the European Union’s 2009 Renewable Energy Directive. McNaughton believes Tidal Lagoon Power’s plans for a fleet of six UK lagoons could play a significant role in meeting this target, and satisfying the country’s future energy needs.
“Tidal Lagoon Power is a concept that can make a radical change,” he says. “I will look back in 10 years and not say that we created lagoons, but that we created a new industry. Every person in the organisation understands the future legacy. That is why I became a civil engineer in the first place, to build communities.”
“Invigorated” by the role, McNaughton says he is enjoying working for the younger organisation: “This is something completely different to running a plc. The company is absolutely clear in its vision. It is so refreshing to have a series of investors and owners that really get the direction of the company.”
Unsurprisingly, he is confident this lagoon and its larger siblings will come to fruition. However, the first project, in Swansea, still has to pass several hurdles before it becomes a reality.
The Severn Estuary has a very large tidal range – second in the world only to the Bay of Fundy in eastern Canada – which has led to numerous proposals to use it to generate electricity. The first came in 1925, and many have followed. All have been brought down by economic and environmental concerns.
But McNaughton believes that, just as the railways expanded in the Victorian age, now is a time when private investment and innovation are key to new infrastructure: “We are now in an age where the government is seeking private investment into infrastructure.” In addition, he points out that the lagoon would have less of an environmental impact than the proposed barrage across the Severn.
The 9.5 km breakwater will encircle the new 11.5 sq km lagoon in Swansea Bay
“The lagoon is not impounding water,” he says. “The lagoon remains tidal, and a large extent of the foreshore will be pretty much as it was before.”
McNaughton believes the public’s attitudes to sustainable energy and tidal power have become more positive: “There is a public awareness that a change is needed in the way we produce energy. If you see green energy as a good thing for the future, then you know that there have to be trade-offs. There is now a more mature attitude to looking at the impact, both ecological and for the community.”
Environmental groups have given the project qualified support. Gareth Clubb, director of Friends of the Earth Cymru, says: “Tidal lagoons are a much better bet than a barrage across the Severn. That scheme was universally opposed by the environmental sector because of the catastrophic damage it would have caused to wildlife and habitats.”
The charity is “broadly supportive of the scheme”, if “environmental impacts can be mitigated and managed”. Two areas of concern are the impact on migratory fish and the source of the rock for the lagoon wall. No decisions have been taken on rock supply, but reports that Tidal Lagoon Power is to reopen a quarry on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall to extract 3 million tonnes of stone have provoked fierce opposition from locals.
Tidal power potential
Estimated potential for power generation from the 10 tidal sites around the UK that could produce the most electricity
Swansea, however, seems to embrace the project – it is expected to attract 100,000 tourists a year and a visitor centre is planned as part of the scheme. Jonathan Roberts, editor of the Swansea-based South Wales Evening Post, says the “general mood in Swansea is largely positive”.
“The economic benefits, in terms of significant investment, job creation and increased visitor numbers, will be most welcome,” he says. “And there is a strong sense of pride in being chosen to lead the development of this technology.”
The scheme also has political support. Labour’s Mike Hedges, Welsh Assembly member for Swansea East, says the “vast majority of my constituents are in favour [of the lagoon]”. In addition to 1,850 construction jobs, the project would create 110 roles in operations, maintenance and at the visitor facilities. A new 9,300 sq m assembly plant for the 16 turbines to be used at Swansea is expected to employ a further 100 people.
But even if all the environmental boxes are ticked, the remaining barrier is financial. However, McNaughton believes the project’s size and speed of delivery, will help: “There was a huge economic problem [with the Severn barrage], as it was too big to finance. There was a lot of time before you see a return on investment. Trying to raise £20bn in capital for a project with a 10-year build time [for the Severn barrage] is a big ask.”
He argues the Swansea project is more realistic: “We will begin commercial operation in 2019, so we are asking funders to back something that will start generating income in four years’ time.”
Tidal Lagoon Power has investment commitments from Prudential and InfraRed Capital Partners for the scheme. However, this is predicated on achieving a “contract for difference” from the government. This sets out a price over a fixed period that will be paid for electricity to a power generator. It is being negotiated with the Department for Energy and Climate Change, so McNaughton will not comment on the “strike price” the company is seeking. However, the reported figure of £168/MWh for 35 years is much higher than the £92.50 strike price for the nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point.
Tidal Lagoon Power explains this by saying its five future lagoons will be larger, and so will benefit from economies of scale to produce cheaper power. It commissioned a report that states that lower strike prices of £130/MWh and £92/MWh would be needed for the second and third lagoons respectively.
“You can’t look at Swansea in isolation”, says McNaughton. “You have to look at the fleet. We believe that when you take a view of the fleet performance over the long term, there is an obvious economic benefit.” There is also potential to export the technology: “We have had interest from several other countries,” he reports.
McNaughton is in no doubt that the Swansea lagoon will succeed where the Severn barrage failed. “Tidal Lagoon Power has the single aim of building lagoons,” he says. “It’s just a fantastic way of generating power.”
Rising tide: five marine energy projects
Rance Tidal Barrage (above)
When it opened in 1966, this barrage across the Rance River in Brittany, northern France, was the largest tidal power station in the world, with an installed capacity of 240MW.
Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station
Currently the world’s largest tidal power station, with an installed capacity of 254MW, this barrage in South Korea opened in 2011. It was constructed from a seawall built as a flood defence.
Annapolis Royal Generating Station
The 20MW facility on the Bay of Fundy in Canada, the only tidal power station in North America, was opened in 1984.
Tidal Lagoon Power (planned)
Along with the proposal for Swansea Bay, Tidal Lagoon Power wants to create a fleet of lagoons around the UK and has applied for planning for a site in Cardiff. Further projects are earmarked at Newport and Colwyn Bay in Wales, Bridgwater in Somerset, and West Cumbria (see map, right).
Incheon Tidal Power Station
Currently under construction in South Korea this barrage with 44 turbines will have a capacity of 1,320MW when it opens in 2017, making it the largest tidal power station in the world by some distance.
The world’s first large-scale commercial tidal stream generator was placed in the Strangford Narrows off the coast of Northern Ireland in 2008. The 1.2MW generator was built to demonstrate the potential of the technology.
MeyGen (planned, below)
The first stage of this proposed scheme would place four 1.5MW turbines on the seabed in Scotland’s Pentland Firth that will take advantage of fast-flowing current to generate electricity.