Marine Renewables – Riding the Crest of the Wave

1974: The first duck. Stephen Salter on right with David Jeffrey the co-founder of the Wave Energy group.The recent announcement of a massive boost for green jobs sees the first tangible sign of the much vaunted ‘Green New Deal’ in Scotland while the recent tidal energy announcements, represent the delayed inheritance of Stephen Salter’s lifes work and a breakthrough for Scotland’s shift to a low-carbon country. Ben Murray, the principal author of last years WWF Scotland/RSPB/WDM & FOES  ‘Power of Scotland Renewed’ report writes:

The challenge facing us over the next couple of decades will be to move decisively towards a genuinely low-carbon economy. Failure to do so is not an option. If we’re to do this, we’ll need to make the most of every sustainable energy source that we can. Happily, in Scotland, we’re better placed than most in this respect, with an embarrassment of renewable energy resources on our very doorstep.

Now it seems that the so-called Saudi Arabia of marine energymay finally start to realise its enormous potential for producing clean, sustainable electricity. Last week, the Crown Estate announced that it had signed agreements for ten wave and tidal stream energy schemes in the Pentland Firth and around Orkney.

It’s hoped that the schemes, with a total installed capacity of 1.2 GW, will be up and running by 2020 and supplying power to up to 700,000 households. As well as providing carbon-free power, the projects announced last week will also go a long way towards the green jobs revolution outlined in a paper jointly produced by Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Government was quick to welcome the announcement from the Crown Estate; encouraging marine alternatives to hydro and onshore wind – currently the staples of Scottish renewable capacity – has been central to the government’s energy policy since coming to power in 2007. The previous administration was also keen to support marine renewables, and established the Marine Energy Group (MEG) as part of the Forum for Renewable Energy Development in Scotland (FREDS) back in 2004.

But the story of Scottish marine energy research goes much further back than that – thirty years further back. Why, when the energy potential of Scottish waters has long been recognised, has it taken us until now to reach this point?

Cast your mind back to 1973. The Yom Kippur war in the Middle East has led to the first of the great oil crises. Angered by US support for Israel, OPEC has cut production by 5% and imposed an embargo on oil supplies to America and other nations friendly to Israel.

The impacts are immediate and dramatic. Oil prices quadruple in a matter of weeks. Petrol rationing is introduced to America, and a 55mph speed limit is imposed. The embargo does not extend to the UK (which did not support US military involvement in the Yom Kippur war) but here the effects of the global oil price increase are compounded by the miners’ strike and the three day week. It’s crunch time.

The following year, in response to the energy crunch, Stephen Salter establishes the Wave Power Project at Edinburgh University. 1974 also sees the first version of Salter’s famous Duck, an oscillating wave energy device designed to convert the rise and fall of waves into useful electrical energy.

Compared to modern wave energy devices such as the Oyster or Pelamis, Salter’s Duck is extremely efficient: it’s claimed that the Duck can extract up to 90% of the energy contained in a wave and then convert 90% of this into useful electricity. Efficiencies of these orders are unheard of in modern wave energy devices. But in order to achieve these efficiencies, the Duck is also very sophisticated, with a series of gyroscopes, cams, oil pumps and electrical generators. Indeed, it’s been claimed that the Duck should be classified as a second or even third generation wave energy converter, so perhaps its time is yet to come, and in the years ahead rows of ducks will be nodding away in the seas to the west of the Hebrides, sending cheap, clean electricity ashore …

Either way, a fall in energy prices, combined with intense pressure from the nuclear industry for increased government funding, led to devices such as the Duck being effectively sidelined. It’s alleged that a 1982 meeting of nuclear and fossil fuel lobbyists killed off any further Government funding; others claim that a deeply flawed study conducted by the UK Government’s Energy Technology Support Unit overestimated the costs of the Duck by a factor of 10. The story of Salter’s Duck is one of missed opportunities and shady vested interests.

But back to the present day. The ten proposed installations have a total capacity 1.2 GW, which is certainly not to be sniffed at. But The Power of Scotland Renewed, a report published last year, claims that by 2030, installed wave and tidal capacity could be over 4.6 GW, supplying at least one fifth of Scotland’s annual electricity demand. And a 2001 study carried out for the then Scottish Executive put the total economically viable wave and tidal potential capacity at no less than 21.5 GW, almost one quarter of the entire UK electricity generating capacity.

It’s taken us a long time to get here. The road is littered with the carcasses of failed – and betrayed – marine energy devices. But moving offshore offers us probably the best opportunity develop a genuinely sustainable electricity generation system for the years ahead. No single wave or tidal installation can supply electricity 24/7. But waves (which are merely a function of wind) can be predicted several days ahead, while tides can be accurately predicted as far into the future as you could possibly wish to go. Combine marine renewables with an expanded wind sector (both on- and offshore), improved interconnections and deferrable demand and there’s no reason why we can’t be 100% reliant on wholly sustainable electricity by 2030, no matter what the nuclear lobby would have you believe.

Providence has given Scotland not only a marine energy resource that is the envy of the world, we also have a proud history of technical innovation and acumen. Scottish engineers and inventors were at the very heart of the industrial revolution that built the modern world, for better or worse. Our universities have a reputation for research and development that is second to none. And we have a government that is now prepared to support the marine renewables sector both politically and financially. If we can’t make a success of marine renewables, benefitting Scotland both environmentally and economically, it’s hard to see how anybody can.

Ben Murray is the Principal at Blackwood Environmental Consulting and a former advisor on energy and climate to the Green Members of the Scottish Parliament. Trained as an engineer in the Royal Navy, he served on Polaris submarines before becoming an environmental activist and campaigner in the early 1990s.

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  1. Great to see. My grandfather used to call for this 50 years ago and I can still remember Major’s government refusing to fund any new energy technology until it was ‘commercially viable’ – in other words they didn’t give it a penny of government money – so the first Scottish built wave power stations were off Portugal, not Scotland.

  2. Will Stevenson says:

    that’s an exciting bit of news that the whole world could use, GO SCOTLAND!

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks Will! Yes of course Duncan we are way behind other European countries depsite having the best natural conditions of wind and tide, partly this is because of the obsession with nuclear common to Tories and Labour and now being aggressively pursued by Brown.

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