The tide moves a huge amount of water
twice each day, and harnessing it could provide a great deal of
energy - around 20% of Britain's needs.
Although the energy supply is reliable and plentiful,
converting it into useful electrical power is not easy.
There are eight main sites around Britain where tidal
power stations could usefully be built, including the Severn, Dee,
Solway and Humber estuaries. Only around 20 sites in the world have
been identified as possible tidal power stations.
A few years ago, "tidal power" meant
"tidal barrage", but these days there are other options as well.
How it works: Tidal Barrages
These work rather like a hydro-electric
scheme, except that the dam is much bigger.
A huge dam (called a "barrage") is built
across a river estuary. When the tide goes in and out, the water
flows through tunnels in the dam.
The ebb and flow of the tides can be used to turn
or it can be used to push air through a pipe, which then turns a
Large lock gates, like the ones used on canals, allow ships to pass.
If one was built across the Severn Estuary, the tides
at Weston-super-Mare would not go out nearly as far - there'd be
water to play in for most of the time.
But the Severn Estuary carries sewage and other wastes
from many places (e.g. Bristol & Gloucester) out to sea. A tidal
barrage would mean that this stuff would hang around Weston-super-Mare
an awful lot longer!
Also, if you're one of the 80,000+ birds that feeds
on the exposed mud flats when the tide goes out, then you have a
problem, because the tide won't be going out properly any more.
The largest tidal power station in the world (and
the only one in Europe) is in the Rance estuary in northern France,
near St. Malo. It was built in 1966.
A major drawback of tidal power stations is that they
can only generate when the tide is flowing in or out - in other
words, only for 10 hours each day. However, tides are totally predictable,
so we can plan to have other power stations generating at those
times when the tidal station is out of action.
Video clip: Tidal barrage,
Rance Estuary, France
There have been plans for a "Severn
Barrage" from Brean Down in Somerset to Lavernock Point
in Wales. Every now and again the idea gets proposed, but nothing
has been built yet.
It would cost at least £15 billion
to build, but other figures about the project seem to vary depending
on where you look. For example, one source says the Severn Barrage
would provide over 8,000 Megawatts of power (that's over 12 nuclear
power station's worth), another says it would be equivalent to 3
nuclear power stations. The variation in the numbers is because
there are several different Severn Barrage projects being proposed,
so be careful about which numbers you quote if you're a student
researching this topic.
There would be a number of benefits,
including protecting a large stretch of coastline against damage
from high storm tides, and providing a ready-made road bridge. However,
the drastic changes to the currents in the estuary could have huge
effects on the ecosystem, and huge numbers of birds that feed on
the mud flats in the estuary when the tide goes out would have nowhere
out more at:
is to use
offshore turbines, rather like an
underwater wind farm.
This has the advantage of being much cheaper to build,
and does not have the environmental problems that a tidal barrage
There are also many more suitable sites.
out more at www.marineturbines.com
The University of Wales Swansea and partners are
also researching techniques to extract electrical energy from flowing
The "Swanturbines" design is different to
other devices in a number of ways. The most significant is that
it is direct drive, where the blades are connected directly to the
electrical generator without a gearbox between. This is more efficient
and there is no gearbox to go wrong. Another difference is that
it uses a "gravity base", a large concrete block to hold
it to the seabed, rather than drilling into the seabed. Finally,
the blades are fixed pitch, rather than actively controlled, this
is again to design out components that could be unreliable.
Find out more at www.swanturbines.co.uk
December 2008: A "Tidal
Reef" across the Severn Estuary is
At first glance this looks like a tidal barrage,
but this design does not block the water movement as much, so it
wouldn't affect the tides as severely and the environmental consequences
would be much less. It could be built in sections, so power could
start being generated sooner.
Migratory fish could get through, mud flats could
still be exposed at low tide, and it would be able to generate power
for more hours in the tidal cycle. Sections of it would open to
allow shipping through, and it could be used to control tidal levels
further upstream, for example preventing storm surges from flooding
low-lying land. (Author's note - I live on low-lying land near the
Severn Estuary, so I'm quite keen on this!)
Tidal barrages have been built before, whereas this
idea is untested - so it'll be interesting to see if it gets approved.
out more at www.severntidal.com.
Yet another option:
Find out more from the Canadian company Blue Energy at www.bluenergy.com
August 2010: BBC News:
Tidal Turbine project in the Orkneys
- Once you've built it, tidal power is free.
- It produces no greenhouse gases or other waste.
- It needs no fuel.
- It produces electricity reliably.
- Not expensive to maintain.
- Tides are totally predictable.
- Offshore turbines and vertical-axis turbines are
not ruinously expensive to build and do not have a large environmental
- A barrage across an estuary is very expensive to build,
and affects a very wide area - the environment is changed for many
miles upstream and downstream. Many birds rely on the tide uncovering
the mud flats so that they can feed. Fish can't migrate, unless "fish
ladders" are installed.
- Only provides power for around 10 hours each
day, when the tide is actually moving in or out.
- There are few suitable sites for tidal barrages
Is it renewable?
The tides will continue to ebb and flow, and the energy is there for the