Back to the drawing board
Gerry Brooke takes a look back at the many schemes for a
Victorian design: Thomas Fulljames' proposed barrage from Aust to Beachley
AFTER many years on the back burner, a barrage across the river
Severn from Brean Down, near Weston- super-Mare, to Lavernock
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Point, near Cardiff, is now emerging as a real possibility.
Other plans envisage a barrage from Minehead to Aberthaw, or
a smaller one from Aust to Beachley, upstream of the old Severn
Another alternative option is a “tidal fence” with floating
turbines and a wave power station facing the incoming tide.
The Severn Tidal Power Group (STPG) – a consortium made up
of construction giants such as Sir Robert McAlpine and Taylor
Wimpey – backs the barrage idea.
A £9 million two-year feasibility study ends soon and a
shortlist of schemes will be announced in December.
But this isn't a new idea – not by any means. The concept
has been around for more than 150 years.
Victorian engineer Thomas Fulljames, for instance, proposed
one in 1849 from Aust to Beachley (now the site of the first
Severn Bridge), a span of just over a mile.
Rather than generating electricity this was based on the
need for a large, safe harbour, railways and flood
All went quiet until 1925, when an official study concluded
that the best place to barrage the Channel was at English
Stones, near the Welsh coast. Although considered technically
feasible, it was turned down on the grounds of its projected
£25 million cost.
A few years later, in 1931, Paul Shishkoff, a Russian
immigrant, showed off a prototype tidal generator at Avonmouth
which included a novel mechanism for spreading the power output
over 24 hours.
In the Forties, Nazi Germany even drew up plans for a Severn
barrage. It would, of course, have to win World War II
Post war, in 1948, the Government took another look at the
The scheme then was estimated at £60 million – but five
years later this had escalated to £200 million.
In 1971, Bristol tidal power expert Dr Tom Shaw proposed a
barrage from Brean Down to Lavernock Point at an estimated cost
of £500 million.
But four years later a Central Electricity Generating Board
(CEGB) study concluded that this wouldn't be economically
viable unless the country's energy situation deteriorated.
By now, of course, North Sea gas and oil was coming on
In 1981, with fuel costs rising, the barrage plans were
reinvestigated by a committee headed by Professor Sir Hermann
This looked at six possible locations, from the English
Stones down to Lynmouth in North Devon and Porthcawl in South
The committee favoured Tom Shaw's 10-mile barrage between
Brean Down and Lavernock Point, with sluice and plain caissons
together with sand and rock-fill embankments.
In 1984, builder Wimpey Atkins came up with the idea of a
smaller barrage at English Stones which avoided the
environmental impact of a larger one.
But this was criticised because it would have caused too
In 1987, Arthur Hooker, in conjunction with Parsons
Brinckerhoff, prepared a revised, cheaper scheme, a shoots
barrage, just below the Second Severn Crossing.
But even this, it was estimated, would cost between £1.4 and
£1.8 billion to build over some four years.
Portbury and Avonmouth would be unaffected, with smaller
locks allowing shipping access to the Sharpness canal and
Electricity generation would be on the ebb tide.
A £4.2 million study by the STPG a few years later concluded
that the energy output from a Brean Down barrage – generated in
the flow direction – would be equivalent to about 18 million
tons of coal or three nuclear reactors.
A huge set of shipping locks would handle the largest
Construction costs over eight years (and employing some
35,000 workers) would be about £8 billion.
But environmental issues proved unacceptable and the plans
Of course the issues of global warming and soaring energy
prices have now made the economics much more favourable.
Two years ago, Welsh businessman Gareth Woodham submitted
plans for a Brean Down to Lavernock Point barrage. Featuring 14
electricity-generating turbines, a dual carriageway, a light
railway, four marinas and two lock gates, it would cost about
£650 million and take up to 20 years to complete.
Last October, the UK's Sustainable Development Commission
published a report looking at the potential of tidal power but
focusing on the Cardiff-Weston and the shoots schemes.
Following on from this came a proposal for a hydro-electric
barrier which would meet five per cent of Britain's power
This will culminate in a full public consultation in early
The estimated construction costs are huge, generally in the
£10 to £15 billion range, but have even been put as high as £23
Perhaps the Victorian engineers should have got on with it