[ 28 February 2019 ]
We have some of the best marine energy resources in the world (we're an island in the Atlantic, FFS). Many of the technology concepts started here. So is Britain ruling the waves?
British sea power
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.
And what’s not to like about marine energy? It is clean. It's constant. It’s utterly predictable – tides can be calculated decades in advance. Wave hello, say good tide.
"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,"
John Ward, director of Robert Bird Group UK, quoted in New Civil Engineer
The UK has led the world in tidal stream and wave technologies research since 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. (For decades since, Edinburgh University has been a global centre of excellence for wide and tide technologies, with testing facilities such as its FloWave.)
Generally, UK’s academic and research expertise in this field continues to remain highly regarded internationally. The SuperGen UKCMER, for example, is a major research collaboration dating back to 2003 which includes 14 universities among its partners.
Another important centre of knowhow is the test site facility Wave Hub in Cornwall.
The Orkneys – world capital of marine energy
The Orkneys have 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, “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.”
The Orbital Marine floating tidal turbine. Photo: Orbital Marine
Going with the tide
Currently, 22 tidal device developers are active in the UK.
Current stars are 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 meters under the sea. More turbines are 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.”
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, tidal technologies 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.
A flood of knowledge
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."
Flow-ers of Scotland, powers of politics
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. It 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.
A long hard row
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.”
"Marine technologies offer an energy opportunity where the UK can reasonably aspire to be the global leader" The Hendry Review, the role of tidal lagoons, 2017
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