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by Lindsay Leask
26 September 2014
Follow the leader

Follow the leader

The opening of the planet’s most sophisticated tide and wave simulator in August marks a further boost for Scotland’s world-leading wave and tidal energy industry.

The University of Edinburgh’s 2.4 million litre Flo-Wave tank can recreate scale equivalents of waves up to 28 metres high and currents of 16mph, and offers UK wave and tidal developers their first chance to carry out large-scale tests of devices and individual components before heading out into the turbulent waters of the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Orkney.

Previously, pioneering companies leading the marine energy industry in Scotland – Aquamarine Power, Nautricity, Pelamis, ScotRenewables and more – had to go abroad to carry out these crucial trials. Now, they can be done right here in Scotland.

As Stuart Brown, FloWave Chief Executive Officer, says: “If EMEC is the lab in the ocean, then FloWave is the ocean in the lab.”

The £10.5m facility is yet another string to Scotland’s bow as the place for marine energy and will give our modern innovators an even greater advantage as they grapple with the challenges of commercialising this nascent sector.

Many would argue that the industry we know today was born at Edinburgh University in 1974, when Professor Stephen Salter’s ‘nodding duck’ demonstrated for the first time that 90 per cent of wave motion could be converted successfully into electricity.

Professor Salter won the inaugural Saltire Prize Medal in 2011, after the competition was started to recognise an outstanding contribution to the development of wave or tidal power generation.

This year’s winner, Aquamarine Power founder Allan Thomson, will lecture at Scottish Renewables’ Marine Conference, Exhibition and Dinner, in Inverness on 23-24 September, when marine energy’s key figures come together to discuss their industry.

The last 12 months have been busy ones for the marine sector, with four new wave and tidal site leases announced by the Crown Estate and the generation of the beginning of electricity generation from the world’s first community-owned tidal turbine (in Yell, Shetland). Scotland has also taken a new lead role in the European Commission’s Ocean Energy Forum, the first phase in the EC’s action plan to promote the sector.

All these developments will be up for discussion at the conference, which will also showcase the world-leading wave and tidal energy technologies and expertise being developed off Scotland’s coast.

The event has a more international dimension this year, as it is one of seven Global Excellence conferences being sponsored by the Scottish Cities Alliance to provide a legacy from 2014 events including the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup.

That international dimension couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, after Scottish company Nautricity signed an agreement to develop a 500kW project in Nova Scotia, showing yet again the huge export opportunities open to Scotland if we continue to build on our world-leading position in marine energy.

The conference’s Global Outlook session will look at Scotland’s current place in the marine energy world, and consider how the country can build on its legacy of innovation, capitalise on the growing global market and work collaboratively with other nations to deliver an energy revolution.

Conference delegates will also get a snapshot of how the sector is developing in the ‘Speed Updates’ session, a quick-fire outline of how a range of projects and technologies have progressed over the last year.

Key to the success of the marine energy industry in Scotland has been Orkney’s EMEC facility, where more grid-connected wave and tidal energy devices are deployed than at any other single site in the world. The contribution of the facility cannot be underestimated, and the Highlands and islands’ place at the heart of wave and tidal device development is a key reason Scottish Renewables’ Marine Conference is held in Inverness, the Highland capital.

Neil Kermode, EMEC’s Managing Director, will chair a conference session titled ‘Grid: Needs Must’, where the realities of connecting remote marine energy devices to the electricity grid will be faced.

Accessing grid connections remains a thorny and seemingly intractable problem for the marine sector. The lack of infrastructure to guarantee electricity generated by marine energy is fed into the grid is an enormous challenge, with the prospect of interconnector cables between the mainland and Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides still not progressing as quickly as the industry might like.

It is imperative for the future success of the marine energy industry that projects around the islands can be connected to the electricity grid – and a price which recognises these are still early-stage technologies but hold enormous potential.

Kermode says: “Orkney’s electricity is already generally powered by renewables, with the excess being profitably sold through the national grid for use further south.

“But the lack of investment in grid infrastructure is biting hard, with renewables businesses starting to struggle as the grid fills up and the means to export power is not arriving in time as expected. These islands need a grid fit for the 21st century. The time to build it is now.”

There are many positives for marine energy in Scotland, but equally, there is no room for complacency. While we still lead the world in the development of this sector, other countries are nipping at our heels, making it more important than ever that we find solutions to these big issues. However, Scotland isn’t alone in facing these challenges, and there is a growing recognition that if we are to tackle them successfully we need to work more closely across Europe. 

In the past, interest from the continent has been viewed with a degree of trepidation – nervousness that Scotland might lose its hard-fought global lead in this sector. Today, collaboration is the industry’s watchword, both between businesses and between European administrations.

The opportunities we have to gain through sharing our experiences are great. By collaborating across Europe we can open up new finance streams, dissipate regulatory burdens and find innovative solutions to technical challenges. The EU and its member states must work together in a coordinated fashion to unlock the potential in our seas.

At times, the challenges for the marine energy sector might seem as sizeable as the waves crashing off our northern coasts. But Scotland, the innovation nation, has risen to such challenges many times before, and is doing so again.

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