Thursday, February 5, 2009

Marine Renewables: missing out again?

The UK has a large marine energy resource - wave energy and free-standing tidal current turbine projects might supply 20% of UK electricity, and possibly much more.

In 2001 the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, commented bitterly that ‘given the UK's abundant natural wave and tidal resource, it is extremely regrettable and surprising that the development of wave and tidal energy technologies has received so little support from the Government’.

Since then some funding has been made available- for example some small grants from research councils and the Carbon Trust and the governments £42m Marine Renewables Deployment Fund. However, although there are many dozens of wave and tidal current turbine projects underway around the country, none so far has been eligible for support from the MRDF- which requires them to have three months operation at commercial scale in the sea.

So what’s gone wrong? Basically it’s the familiar story- a government fixation on ‘leaving it up to the market’. As the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology put it ‘Government policy is to avoid

‘picking winners’, instead letting the market converge on the best approaches’. So the research teams are meant to push ahead, with a few small grants, and then private sector investors and companies should deciding which projects are worthy for follow up - using the MRDF to reduce their risks, backed up by the Renewables Obligation, which will offer revenue support for commercial projects.

But we’re stalled at the start. In a review in 2007, the governments Renewable Advisory Board commented that ‘the MRDF is fundamentally a sound scheme. It, in itself, is not a failure, but the R&D process has failed to supply the technologies that the MRDF was established to support’.

It’s not for lack of enthusiasm. Indeed it is getting hard to find a UK University that does not have a wave or tidal hardware or assessment project underway. There are also many new start-up companies, some of them spun out of University groups.

The pioneers were Wavegen, with their 500kW Limpet device built into a rocky outcrop of the shore of the Isle of Islay in Scotland. And subsequently there have been some other successes- notably the SeaGen tidal current turbine, a 1.2MW version of which has been installed in Strangford Narrows in Northern Ireland, and the Pelamis ‘wave snake’ device, with a 2.3 MW project being installed in Portugal. Some ambitious projects have also been proposed. For example there are plans for an 8MW tidal farm off the west coast of the UK, using Lunar energy’s sea-bed mounted ‘ducted rotor’ system. But most of the rest are still at the prototype and testing stage.

Interestingly though, the Scottish Executive is proving to be more effective with its Marine support programme, having allocated £13m in direct granted aid to nine wave and tidal current projects. This reflects its enthusiasm for renewables generally- Scotland already gets 20% of its electricity form renewables and has the very ambitious target of getting 50% by 2020.

The UK is still in the lead technologically in both areas, but new marine technologies are emerging in other EU countries and in the US, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere, with S Korea having a major commitment in this area. As a result, there are concerns that the UK’s lead in wave and tidal power may be lost- already several overseas developers have proposed projects in the UK using their own technology. It would be tragic if the UK, with its long history of marine and offshore engineering excellence, and its very large marine energy potential, does not the take the challenge seriously.

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