Unleashing the Power of the UK’s Mersey River

The Mersey river’s strong tides and currents could be used to produce significant amounts of renewable energy in the future, according to a team of experts who have spent the last year evaluating a variety of possible technologies. One option being considered is a modern twist on an energy generating source that has been in use for thousands of years — a waterwheel.

“Waterwheels produce less energy than marine current turbines, but they are robust and require low maintenance,” said Peter Guthrie, a Professor of Engineering for Sustainable Development at Cambridge University. Guthrie is part of the study led by consultants Buro Happold and co-sponsored by Peel Holdings — owner of the Mersey Docks & Harbour Company and Liverpool John Lennon airport — and the Northwest Regional Development Agency (NWDA). Many of the technologies being evaluated by the team are so new that they are still under development. For this reason, the team is likely to recommend a pilot project that would allow testing before full implementation. “The whole principle of the study is that the technologies under consideration must be proven, but they would be used in a new environment. We are trying to be innovative and novel but also reduce the risk to a minimum. A staged approach is appealing in terms of speed, practicality and affordability,” said Guthrie. While a waterwheel is a novel idea, a more likely option for the Mersey is underwater turbines. According to the study, the Mersey is one of the best locations in the UK for the production of marine renewable energy because of its large tidal range of 8-10 meters and powerful tidal currents. “We are looking at the type of technologies available for generating electrical power. It has already been established that it is tidal flow and not wave power that would be the most suitable method for the Mersey. There are different schemes that could be utilized, some visible and some hidden. It may be that a scheme will be [tried] initially as part of a wide consultation process,” said Tim Bownes, chief engineer at Mersey Docks. The team is due to release its final recommendations next April. It will lay out a shortlist of the two or three most promising technologies as well as the two or three most likely locations on the estuary. The next step would then be for Peel Holdings to take the shortlist of options forward for more detailed consideration. “The environment, shipping and regeneration have been integral to this study from the outset. Any scheme would have to bring benefits to local people and the local economy, but we must also respect the Mersey Estuary’s importance for wildlife such as wading birds,” said Guthrie.