The UK's marine energy start-ups are among the most innovative and enterprising companies in the world. But can they grow fast enough to help make this country a world leader in renewable energy?
Man has been using the power of water for millennia, but only recently has the sea been regarded as a serious alternative energy source. "There is an epic amount of energy out there it's just a question of working out how to harness it," says Neil Kermode, managing director of the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), the world's first test centre for wave and tidal energy.
According to the Carbon Trust, marine energy could provide 15-20 per cent of the UK's power needs. But this is some way off. "There is an awfully long way to go," says Kermode. "At the moment, we are where the Wright brothers were [in aeronautics]."
EMEC has a critical role to play in the advancement of the UK's marine energy industry. Based on the Orkney Islands off the north of Scotland, it is funded by the UK government, the EU and the Scottish Executive. Although geographically remote, Orkney has a number of unique advantages as a test site. It has a strong connection to the national grid, unlike Shetland—which is not on the grid—or the Western Isles, which have a weaker connection. In addition, about a quarter of the UK's potential wave energy is in the area between John O'Groats and Orkney where the North Sea and north Atlantic meet, which causes very strong tides.
Deep water near to the shore means a minimal amount of cabling is needed and the natural harbour of Scapa Flow offers excellent facilities where work can be carried out safely near to the test site.
"There are certain issues that are the same for everyone," says Kermode. "They will all need cables, a grid connection and substations—if we can provide this infrastructure once, for anyone who wants to use it, they can concentrate on making their devices work."
Richard Yemm, managing director of Edinburgh-based Pelamis Wave Power, agrees. "Scotland is unique in terms of offshore engineering resources," he says. His company's Pelamis device was the first floating wave energy device to provide power to the national grid through EMEC.
For now, only Pelamis Wave Power is using the wave-testing site, but other developers are already queuing up to use the facilities. These include another Edinburgh group, Aquamarine Power, which is set to deploy its device this summer, and AWS, which will install its Archimedes Wave Swing system next year.
To date there are 53 wave concepts on offer, representing a wide variety of technologies. While Pelamis is moored in deep water and uses the motion of the waves to drive hydraulic rams, for example, Aquamarine's device is a shallow-water machine that uses the waves to pump water under pressure to a hydro-electric plant on the shore. Yemm believes the field will narrow considerably along the way. "A lot of companies will build prototypes, a few will get to test them and fewer still will scale up and reach commercialisation," he says. "The finance people don't want to deal with lots of different technologies. If you look at wind, there were all sorts of different ideas but now virtually all turbines have three blades on top of a white pole."
In tidal power, the most promising technologies seem to be turbine-based. Irish company OpenHydro's Open turbine is set to hook up to the grid at EMEC's tidal site later this year, while Bristol-based Marine Current Turbines expects to be providing power from a 1.2MW prototype in Northern Ireland's Strangford Lough by the end of the summer.
Elsewhere, a consortium has proposed a £10bn barrage across the Severn estuary that could generate up to six per cent of England and Wales' electricity and there are also plans for a 700MW barrage on the Mersey estuary. But tidal barrages are unpopular with environmental groups, who believe they do more harm than good.
A Severn scheme received a boost at the Labour Party Conference in September, when John Hutton, the Business and Enterprise secretary, announced a multimillion pound feasibility study into what would be one of the world's biggest civil engineering projects if it went ahead. But there are lessons to be learnt from the construction history the largest barrage in the world, on the River Rance in France. A recent marine energy conference on the Isle of Wight heard that the barrage, which the Severn scheme would dwarf, took four years to build but underwent 20 years of studies beforehand.
In the meantime, other countries are developing their own marine energy sectors, including Portugal, Ireland, the US and Canada—although few have the resource of the UK or an equivalent amount of offshore skills and infrastructure. And with the South West Wave Hub, a similar technology test site off the north Cornish coast, due to be up and running next year, the UK is well placed to become a world leader in marine energy technology.
Plain sailing? Not quite. Kermode is concerned the UK could lose this leadership, as it did in the wind sector. "I desperately want it to be UK-based technology harvesting this resource, but I fear that the UK will blink at the last minute," he says.
It is still a struggle for companies to finance wave devices because they are small while the devices are big and expensive. So until the industry becomes established, there are no economies of scale. The funding in this country is good—the Scottish Executive has committed £8m funding for marine energy and made its renewables obligation system favour marine power, as has the recent UK Energy White Paper. There is also £50m available from the DTI's Marine Renewables Deployment Fund (MRDF) and £3.5m from the Carbon Trust's Marine Energy Accelerator. But, to gain MRDF funds, companies must have three months of performance data. "Most companies in this sector only have one device, so they have to be very cautious about exposure and use of their product because they do not have the luxury of seeing it fail," says Kermode.
Help from the private sector always comes in handy, of course, and there are signs that backers with deep pockets are beginning to emerge. Oil group Total has taken a stake in Scotrenewables, another Orkney-based company, while Chevron has signed a joint venture deal with Irish group Wavebob. "The oil majors are exactly what this industry needs," says Kermode. "They have the technology, the skills and the experience to work offshore and the resources to scale the sector up rapidly."
In comparative terms, overall industry funding is tiny. "I would be surprised if £150m has been spent on wave energy-ever," says Kermode. "The Danes invested £150m on wind power every year from 1993 to 2003, and now they have an industry with revenues in excess of £1bn." Meanwhile, at home, £18bn will be spent on the UK's road network every year for the next decade.
Despite these difficulties, and the huge challenges involved in producing machines that will work reliably and for a long time in harsh sea conditions, marine energy is on the cusp of great things, says Kermode. Yemm agrees: "This is a tremendously exciting time—the world is our oyster."