Scotland’s tidal wave

Written on 26 September 2014 in Feature

World’s first tidal array could herald a new economic future for the north of Scotland

The tide is turning in Scotland’s long-held ambition to become a global powerhouse in marine energy.

The news earlier this month that the MeyGen tidal project in the Pentland Firth had secured funding for the first phase of its 398MW tidal scheme marks a watershed moment in the industry’s progress – and could herald a significant new economic future for the north of Scotland.

The idea of harnessing the vast energy of the Pentland Firth’s tides and turning it into electricity is not new, but it is only now – when technology has progressed to the point where it can become commercially viable – that we can see the very real prospect of a full-scale scheme on the near horizon.

Project owner Atlantis Resources has agreed a £50m funding package for the 6MW first phase of its MeyGen scheme, and work is set to commence this autumn, with a number of Scottish firms to the fore.

The first phase is a demonstration project (Phase 1a) which will comprise four machines – three 1.5MW turbines built by Austrian firm Andritz Hydro Hammerfest and one 1.5MW unit developed by Atlantis. 

This has subsequently been augmented by a further £7.5m of funding from the Energy Technologies Institute to deliver “a multi-turbine foundation structure” that aims to support a further two Atlantis 1.5MW tidal nacelles at the Inner Sound site. 

The Phase 1a turbines will start to be installed in the firth early in 2016, with the first electricity anticipated to be delivered to the grid later that year. 

“This is a hugely important moment for the marine renewables sector in the Highlands and islands,” according to Calum Davidson, Director of Energy and Low Carbon at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, one of the investors in the project. 

“It offers not just the prospect of a new source of low carbon energy, but also potential to generate new low carbon employment and economic activity across the north of the country.”  

Already some of the dividends are being felt.

“A number of Scottish businesses will be playing a significant role in the project,” explains MeyGen Chief Executive Officer Dan Pearson. 

“Andritz Hydro Hammerfest will be using their design and execution team based in Glasgow, whilst the turbines’ gravity foundations will be built by Isleburn at Nigg prior to being shipped to Scrabster; and we’ll be calling on JGC Engineering & Technical Services in Thurso to deliver the ballast blocks which will hold the foundations in place,” Pearson says.

The consortium has contracted Scotland-based James Fisher Marine Services to deliver all the offshore elements of the first phase, and onshore, the East Kilbride operation of ABB will carry out civil works and onshore electrical equipment supply. Where possible, all civil contractor works will be sub-contracted by ABB to local Caithness firms.

“It’s great to have experienced businesses involved in the project and very advantageous that many of them are based locally, but we have selected them all on their merits, and in particular their appetite and aspiration to be in the sector,” Pearson explains.

“The Pentland Firth is a hostile environment, and this requires big, expensive vessels to install novel turbines in very short operational windows. It is not for the faint-hearted. The potential is clearly very significant, but at the same time we recognise the first phase will offer up foreseen and unforeseen challenges. 

“We have absolute confidence this can be delivered, but it is vital we are working with partners who understand and recognise the risk.”

On the funding side, the project has secured the backing of both UK and Scottish governments, with investment from DECC, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scotland’s Renewable Energy Investment Fund along with support from the Crown Estate, Atlantis and the Energy Technologies Institute.

It clearly has political backing at the highest level today, but according to Calum Davidson, the seeds of this success story were sown many years ago.

“The establishment of the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney nearly 11 years ago marked Scotland as a world leader in marine energy research and since then EMEC has provided a vital test bed for technologies such as Andritz Hydro Hammerfest,” Davidson says.

“It has also given Scottish firms the opportunity to become involved and gain experience in the sector, and we now have internationally recognised expertise on our doorstep to develop the industry here.

“Success never happens overnight, but I am confident we are now witnessing the transformation of a sector. MeyGen is without doubt one of the most exciting and innovative renewable energy developments in the world. 

Davidson adds: “The MeyGen project clearly marks the long-awaited arrival of tidal stream generation as a potential, large-scale player in global energy markets. This is a significant milestone, and everyone involved should be applauded for their tremendous achievements so far,” 

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