The energy transition brings many benefits beyond simply reducing our carbon footprint. Stanley Reed explains in the New York Times how a shift to tidal power is bringing hope to a region of Wales that was once a major industrial area.
For a Welsh City, the Tides Offer Renewal
“We really need something different to happen,” said Ashley Jones, whose family has been raking shellfish in the area for six generations. “Things just can’t go on the way they are.”
Once referred to as Copperopolis for its central role in the global trade of copper, which reached a peak in the 1860s, Swansea and the surrounding area was also a force in coal mining and steel production. But decades of international competition, most recently from China, have been tough for the city.
Today’s Swansea is far from the throbbing center of industrial activity it once was. A drab and dated downtown contrasts with its long stretch of pebbly beach and a lively bar and restaurant district.
Major industries have shut down. And Tata of India, the current owner of the steel works at Port Talbot, which employs 4,000 people, has sent shudders through the area by saying it was exploring options including a sale or a joint venture for the money-losing business.
The city “lost its way,” said Huw Bowen, a professor of history at Swansea University.
The project, run by Tidal Lagoon Power, could offer some respite.
The company is pushing a 1.3 billion pound, or $1.6 billion, project to build a looping six-mile wall along the coast that would close off a section of Swansea Bay. The area was chosen for its calm, shallow waters, as well as enormous tidal flows that can trap the unwary but have huge potential to generate electric power. At certain times, gates embedded in the wall would shut, letting the tide build up, and then open to allow the pent-up water to surge through giant turbines.
Though solar and wind power are more established forms of renewable energy, tidal energy, in some ways, offers greater potential.
Solar and wind sources wax and wane in terms of generating electricity because of changing weather and light conditions, creating difficulties for the grid as it balances supply and demand. The tides, by contrast, are more consistent and create more reliable power.
The Swansea project, which aims to power 155,000 homes, is the first in a series of green power programs — worth an overall £40 billion — that the company is promoting nationwide.
If the Swansea project succeeds, Tidal Lagoon Power hopes to replicate it elsewhere. Another proposed tidal power system, in the Welsh capital, Cardiff, would be comparable in capacity to a new nuclear plant, providing enough electricity for 1.4 million homes, or all of Wales.
In a best-case situation, the benefits extend beyond just power generation.
A path along the wall is intended to attract sports enthusiasts, promoting tourism. And there is a plan for urban renewal, centered on an oyster-shaped visitors’ center and local art exhibits on the coastal barrier, including a large dragon — the symbol of Wales. Thousands of jobs could be created, both directly and indirectly.
The project represents a chance to arrest “a 40-year decline,” said the company’s chief executive, Mark Shorrock.
That is the argument supporters of the Swansea plan have been making to the powers that be. Because of its scale, the project needs approval from the British government in London, and probably from Prime Minister Theresa May. A former minister is set to publish a report on the technology’s viability in Britain in the coming weeks.
For now, Mr. Shorrock and his colleagues are hopeful.
Mrs. May has said she wants to address economic hardship, and her government has identified large-scale infrastructure projects as having the potential to offset negative impacts from Britain’s vote in June to leave the European Union.
So far, the plan appears to have garnered local support, and central to that has been the promise of jobs.
While unemployment of about 5.3 percent in Swansea is only modestly above the British average, much of the city’s population has been grappling with joblessness for generations. Local residents complain of streets plagued by drugs and an economic ladder that can be tough to climb.
“There are too many people here and not enough jobs,” said Kelly Martin, 37, a site manager for a construction company thanks to a local government program that finds work for the long-term unemployed.
The Swansea project would directly create 2,200 jobs, with the company pledging that at least half of its spending would remain within Wales, and 65 percent within Britain. Dependent industries, like steel fabrication and aquafarming, would also benefit.
As the project awaits approval, Tidal Lagoon Power is lining up investors — like the infrastructure fund InfraRed Capital Partners, based in London, which wants to put in more than £100 million — and suppliers, which range from small local players to behemoths like General Electric.
General Electric, which has spent three and a half years developing its proposals for the Swansea lagoon, views the project as a test case for a promising new technology that could be exported around the world.
“This is a significant opportunity to create an industry that can supply a global market,” said Mark Elborne, General Electric’s chief for Britain.
That is the hope. The reality is more complex.
As with many new renewable energy technologies, the Swansea plan requires a guaranteed price for power. In effect, that is a subsidy the government promises to pay for the electricity generated. The figure would, in theory, gradually wind down as the project becomes more economically viable.
Tidal Lagoon Power is aiming for a guaranteed price of about £90 a megawatt hour. Though comparable to the level the government approved for the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station (itself a contentious issue), and lower than what officials have approved for some offshore wind projects, it is roughly double current power prices.
The legacy of the region’s declining industrial base also complicates matters, creating a jobs mismatch.
There is a shortfall of workers with crucial skills, and local entrepreneurs say finding the welders, metal fabricators and other laborers required to build the Swansea lagoon will be tough. Tidal Lagoon Power is working with local institutes and the Welsh government to ensure appropriate training is available.
“There is quite a large skills shortage,” said David Kieft, who runs an electrical contracting business based in Swansea.
To those in Swansea, though, there are few other options.
Sipping an evening beer at the city’s yacht club, Nick Revell ticked off a series of businesses that had closed their doors recently. Mr. Revell, who employs several hundred welders and other metal workers at his steel business, sees trouble ahead if the plan is vetoed.
“Unless something like this takes off,” he said, referring to the Swansea lagoon, “you will see more closings.”