Friday, December 1, 2017

How not to win – on wave energy

Wave energy was once talked up as the next big thing- and something the UK could excel at. It had the best wave resource- much of it off Scotland. And it had the technological lead, with Stephen Salter’s pioneering ‘Nodding Duck’, Wavegen’s success with  prototype shore-line devices, and some government support- all then crowned by the apparently world beating Pelamis ‘wave snake’ and Oyster ‘hinged clam’ devices.  
To move things along, the UK invested heavily in full-scale ‘open-sea’ test facilities, including EMEC in Scotland (opened in 2004) and WaveHub (established in 2010) in Cornwall and device teams from around the world were invited the UK to test their ideas. These sites include dock facilities and electricity grid connections. EMEC also offered ‘nursery’ sites (e.g. EMEC’s Scapa Flow) for testing of earlier stage, part-scale prototypes in less hostile conditions. WaveHub partnered with FabTest, a nursery test site situated near Falmouth. All seemed set for accelerated development. There was talk of a 10% or even 20% UK electricity contribution, ultimately…
However, things did not go to plan. Indeed, the plans seem to have been faulty. As novel technologies, the wave devices all needed financial support to get established- R&D funding initially and then some form of market enablement backing.  But what was offered was not enough and was poorly targeted, with regularly shifting targets. A new report on the UK wave energy programme from Imperial College and Strathclyde University notes how multiple attempts were made to provide support, but none succeeded due to the poor design of the support schemes. They were overly concerned with limiting the expenditure and getting costs down quickly.
Those with long memories may recall the spat that occurred in the 1980s when the incoming Conservative government cut R&D funding for wave energy and its later reinstatement by a Labour administration. More recently, it has been the handling of the market enablement programme that has led to significant problems.  A case in point is the Marine Renewables Deployment Fund (MRDF) which, from 2004, offered £42m for tidal current turbine and wave energy projects. However, it required projects to have proven themselves at sea at commercial scale for 3 months. No one was likely to build something speculatively in the hope of obtaining funding later! None tried. Only MCT’s Seagen tidal project made it through to the 2ROC/MWh of operational support then being offered to tidal current and wave projects under the Renewables Obligation- and MCT didn’t use the MRDF. No wave projects got through.
In 2008, the Renewables Advisory Board rather lamely said ‘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.’  So the scheme was fine but the technology wasn’t ready! As a bit of a botch, the government did then introduce an interim £22m Marine Renewables Proving Fund, to make projects viable for the MRDF, but that too failed to attract any takers.
The current situation is not much better. Wave and tidal stream projects are eligible for CfD support, and were even guaranteed a protected 100MW tranche @ £305/MWh in the first CfD round, but none were able to take this up and the protected slot was removed in the second CfD round. Tidal steam projects, like the big Meygen scheme in Pentland Firth, have gone ahead with their own money, EU support and/or demonstration grants, but wave energy mostly trails behind at the R& D stage, with funding being cut back. Although, in 2013, the Scottish government offered £13m in support for two larger projects, they didn’t go ahead, with Pelamis and Oyster both going bust. The Scottish government rescued some of the staff, setting up a residual programme, but at present the focus is on R&D and small system testing and development. Some of this looks promising e.g.: the 1MW Wello Penguin on test at the Orkney EMEC site, with EU funding: However, overall, although new ideas continue to emerge, costs are still high, R&D funding is falling, further EU funding for UK work looks uncertain after BREXIT, and the prospects for the immediate future in the UK do not look good- although the EU does have a continuing programme.
Could it have been done better? Given the harsh maritime environment, the technology has proved hard to develop, with several very visible disasters (e.g. the sinking of the 2MW Osprey in a storm off Scotland in 1995) and costs have remained high. But in theory, a properly funded programme might have helped things move along more successfully– if the focus had not always been on getting to low costs quickly. There is a new CfD round  planned for 2019 with ‘less established technologies’ being eligible. It seems unlikely, but wave energy might be one of them, despite the high cost.   
Would it be worth it? Well, the UK wave energy resource is very large, with the winds that blow over the Atlantic creating huge swells.  The resultant wave energy, in effect stored wind energy, persists for some while after the winds have died down, so using it avoids some of the variability problems of wind. But it may take more time to develop viable extraction technologies.  Tidal stream systems, operating on the regular back and forth tidal ebbs and flows in the relatively calm undersea environment, are easier options, although the tidal steam resource may not be as large as that for wave energy. Though for the moment, that’s where most effort in the marine renewables field in the UK and elsewhere is focussed, along with  growing interest in tidal lagoons. There are some surviving tethered buoy-type wave projects around the word (e.g. OPT in the USA and CETO in Australia), and some in the UK (e.g. Seatricity and Searaser) and more may emerge. However, while niche markets may exist for small wave projects in remote locations, and wave energy development is far from dead in the water, for now, with budgets tight, sadly the full, vast, global wave resource seems beyond capture on any significant scale. 
‘Lost at Sea or a new wave of innovation?’ - /share/view/sfa07a0e490740cea
Some wave technology hopefuls:
Seatricty: (UK)


    Energy Analysis in UK

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