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Author: Stuart Rock
Written on: 01 March 2019
Last updated: 06 January 2020


investment, technology, environment, energy, renewables

British sea power: turning the tide

Around half of Europe’s potential wave and tidal resource is thought to be in the UK. Globally, the waters around these islands - from the west coasts of England and Wales, the seas at the north of Scotland, to the Severn estuary – could account for up to 15 per cent of the world’s resources.

Marine energy is clean, constant and utterly predictable – tides can be calculated decades in advance. "Marine technologies offer an energy opportunity where the UK can reasonably aspire to be the global leader," noted Charles Hendry, author of The Hendry Review, which was published in 2017 on the role and potential of tidal lagoons.

Wave brains

It is also an area in which the UK has led the world in tidal stream and wave technologies research. Go back to Salter’s Duck, a device invented in the 1970s by Edinburgh University professor and all-round wave expert Stephen Salter to convert wave power into electricity. (And ever since Edinburgh University has been a global centre of excellence for wide and tide technologies. Its testing facilities, such as its FloWave, are used by companies and researchers from around the world.

Generally, UK’s academic and research expertise remains highly regarded. The SuperGen UKCMER, for example, is a major research collaboration dating back to 2003 which includes 14 universities among its partners.

Britain also has some of the best test site facilities, such as Wave Hub in Cornwall. But the jewel in the crown is the Orkney Islands, where there are more machines converting ocean energy into electricity than anywhere else in the world. It is also the home of the 16-year-old European Marine Energy Centre, described as “the first and only centre of its kind in the world to provide developers of both wave and tidal energy converters with purpose-built, accredited open-sea testing facilities.”

A tide in the affairs of technology

Currently, 22 tidal device developers are active in the UK.

These include Orkney-based Orbital Marine Power, whose floating tidal turbine platform has generated more power in one year than Scotland’s entire wave and tidal energy sector had produced in the previous 12 years.

AIM-listed SIMEC Atlantis is behind the MeyGen project in the Pentland Firth. It is currently the largest planned tidal stream project in the world - with four huge turbines sitting 31 metres under the sea and more turbines due to be added this year. This is serious engineering, as this article explains.

Nova Innovation, with its project in Bluemull Sound in Shetland, is another pioneer. It has recently announced the integration of its tidal energy array with Tesla battery storage, “delivering the world’s first grid-connected ‘baseload’ tidal power station.” Such technology will enable energy supply to be provided locally in remote coastline locations.

Meanwhile, off the North Wales coast, the Swedish company Minesto is running its Deep Green technology – “the first low-velocity tidal energy project in the world.”

Generally, it is the tidal technologies which are at a more advanced stage. While there are 23 wave device developers active in the UK (and there have been several recent failures), wave energy is at an earlier stage of development.

The UK marine energy supply chain is a true world leader, both in technology and project development. One 2016 analysis estimated that around 1,700 people work in the UK wave and tidal sectors, with roughly £445m spent to date in the UK supply chain.

The competitive strength really comes from crossovers – such as how this expertise links to North Sea-acquired skills in areas such as subsea engineering, or designing and manufacturing offshore constructions and operations - and spillovers, where innovative projects lead to the creation of new tools, designs and thinking which spur innovation in other fields. According to this Imperial College paper, "marine energy technologies generate on average the second highest amount of knowledge spillover in the UK; only efficient aviation technologies generate more on average."

"This is cutting edge territory, very exciting for engineers and an opportunity for the UK to be at the forefront of a completely new industry,” says John Ward, director of engineering group Robert Bird Group UK in this article in New Civil Engineer.

Politicians wave hello, and say goodbye

Politically, marine energy has the enthusiastic support of local politicians. The ability to promote renewables and energy efficiency is devolved to the Scottish Government. Which it has duly seized on. Recently, it has announced a new £10m fund to support the achievement of “commercial deployment of tidal energy generation in Scottish waters” alongside £30m committed to date to Wave Energy Scotland (WES). The Welsh Government is also an enthusiastic supporter of marine energy. But its promotion of the £1.3bn Swansea Bay project, which planned the construction of a first-of-its-kind-in-the-world artificial lagoon, failed to get the support of Business Secretary Greg Clark in 2016. This was despite the positive view of the Government-commissioned Hendry Review into the potential of tidal lagoons. Swansea Bay remains dead in the water, so to speak. It was a high profile setback for marine energy; there is a useful summary of its history and the arguments in this House of Commons briefing paper.

Coastal mayors like marine energy, too. Steve Rotheram, the Labour mayor of Liverpool city region, is championing a proposed £1.5bn tidal barrage in the Mersey river, which has the second highest tidal range in the UK after the Severn. (Who knew?)

But will Britain's lead ebb away?

According to a recent report by the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, marine energy "presents a significant opportunity for UK technology developers and supply chain companies given the UK’s current position, worth an estimated £95m per year by 2030, or £1,400m cumulatively."

However, it warns “there is increasing evidence that UK companies or companies which have used the UK’s world-leading testing facilities are being attracted” by markets such as France and Canada. It voices concern that know-how, technology, economic value and jobs will leave the UK and be drawn overseas. “There is a very real danger that as global momentum grows in these countries, the UK risks handing over its global lead to other countries.”

The fear is that just as the Danes grabbed the wind energy industry (now employing 32,000 people and generating €7bn in annual exports), the same will occur with marine energy. And once again, Britain's politicians will stand accused of showing insufficient patience and determination.

The sector has faced financial problems as a result of the removal of subsdies. In 2016, the UK Government decided to remove a ring-fenced subsidy for marine energy. As a renewable energy technology, it now has to compete against nuclear and wind. The next auction round for contracts in May 2019 will probably repeat the 2017 auction, which saw no marine or tidal capacity win a contract. But it’s difficult to compare the price for marine energy compared to nuclear and wind which have reached their current pricing levels after £18bn-worth of subsidies over several decades.

Patience and determination is at a premium here. The road to commercialisation for marine energy has been technically hard and slow. After all, these devices need to be able to survive for long periods of time in a brutal environment as well as generate energy.

As Andrew Scott, CEO of Orbital Marine Power, observes in this article: “This was never going to be like the dotcom boom, where you lock half a dozen intelligent students, computer programmers, in a garage and give them a million pounds, and three years later you’ve got a billion-pound business. It is marine engineering, it’s going to cost money and it’s going to take time.”

So this is an area in which Britain has undoubted technological leadership and natural advantages. We have some of the best marine energy resource in the world, and many of the technology concepts have originated here. It’s time for Britain to push the boat out, gain clear blue water, and use whatever other seaborne metaphors to enhance its world leadership.


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