The call of the running tide

Written by Ronnie Quinn on 26 September 2014 in Feature

The prize for mastering marine energy could be sizeable

There are two things anyone working in marine renewables learns very quickly. One, be patient; significant wins often seem few and far between. Two, don’t expect as much attention (from politicians and the public) as those in oil and gas, shale gas and wind do.

This is the sector for the quietly tenacious and the doggedly determined. Nevertheless, recent developments point to a sector moving forward.

Since the 1970s when Stephen Salter began his groundbreaking research at Edinburgh University, to the launch of the world’s first programme of commercial-scale developments in the Pentland Firth and Orkney waters in 2010, Scotland has pioneered engineering energy from our seas.

Now, Scotland is known around the globe as the home of wave and tidal energy generation. The European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney is still the only accredited wave and tidal test facility of its kind in the world, there are over 30 sites in development in Scottish waters (including two managed by local organisations such as development trusts) and in August a consortium of private and public sector funders committed to invest around £50m in the UK’s first tidal array project.

This package – which includes nearly £10m from the Crown Estate – for Atlantis Resources Ltd’s MeyGen development, is a timely and welcome step forward in helping ensure Scotland and the UK continue to lead the world in tidal current and wave technologies.

The MeyGen project is to be built on the seabed in the Inner Sound in the Pentland Firth and when fully completed it will have the potential to power 175,000 homes. The £50m package is the first time in the world a project of this nature has received the funding not to test or demonstrate a technology, but to build a proper tidal current generating station, so it’s an important milestone.

Crucially, we hope this funding, which comes from Atlantis, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Scottish Enterprise (via the Renewable Energy Investment Fund delivered by the Scottish Investment Bank) and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, as well as ourselves, will encourage investment in other projects, helping keep Scotland and the UK at the forefront of ocean/marine energy.

The breadth of this consortium demonstrates the solid commitment to see this industry flourish and, perhaps more importantly, is an example of the scale of resource and focus of effort that is needed in both the tidal current and wave sectors.

There are of course the unanswered questions about marine energy – how much energy can be generated, when, and at what cost? Some may say we are 10 years away from the answers, and in fairness, many have been saying that for the past 15 years.

As I said, patience helps. And significant challenges remain.

Subsea grid infrastructure is not simple or cheap to construct and the manufacturing supply chain is immature.

As with offshore wind, Scotland is completing globally for investment – how industry and government work to reduce the costs of generating green energy offshore and attract inwards investment is critical.

Equally critical is ensuring we have the right people. Scotland needs skilled employees in engineering, environmental research, construction as well as legal and commercial experts. This needs to start early in life and the Crown Estate has piloted a teaching programme for secondary school pupils (which aligns with Curriculum for Excellence) to help nurture young talent, raising awareness of the range of jobs and career paths in offshore renewables and encouraging them into further study.

A key element was the schools – in Wick, Stromness and Midlothian – visiting marine energy generation sites and teams from locally-based companies helping the pupils learn about the technology and the related economic, social and environmental issues.

The pilot, run by one of the Curriculum for Excellence architects Keir Bloomer, has been evaluated and we are exploring if this can now be rolled out further so that Scots can fully exploit the job opportunities as this sector matures.

And the potential economic benefits – for Scottish businesses and communities – could be significant.

Industry body RenewableUK considers the UK to be well-placed to capture a significant share of the global market, which it forecasts to be worth £50bn by 2050. And according to Scottish Renewables, there are already over 800 companies working in the Scottish wave and tidal sectors.

Visit Kirkwall and businesses will report the increased trade since the sites in the Pentland Firth and Orkney waters were opened up for development in 2010,  kick-starting investment by the Crown Estate and developers that will ensure Scotland reaps the rewards.

So the prize for mastering marine energy could be sizeable.

We are investing in the MeyGen project as part of our stated intent to support the tidal current sector and believe that this project could play a crucial role in advancing technology and developing essential construction and operating experience that will take the industry towards larger commercial schemes around the UK and worldwide.

For many years, developers, investors and public bodies have been pushing forward on a very wide front in the expectation that the market will drive forward technological advancements. Now, this investment from a broad coalition will prompt renewed focus which could bring in much-needed new investors.

With apologies to John Masefield: we must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide, is a wild and a clear call that may not be denied.

 

About the author

Ronnie Quinn is  Head of Ocean Energy at the Crown Estate

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