Scotland hopes to ride the next renewable energy wave. Site leases for several big wave and tidal power projects were awarded last week by the U.K. government, concluding a two-year bidding process that elicited strong interest from major utilities and energy entrepreneurs. The awards open the way for six wave energy projects and four tidal energy systems around Scotland’s Orkney Islands that could collectively generate up to 1.2 gigawatts, exceeding the U.K.’s 700-megawatt target for the bidding round. This is an immense scale for an industry that so far has installed only pilot projects involving a handful of small devices.
“This industry is about to grow up,” says Martin McAdam, CEO of Edinburgh-based Aquamarine Power, which secured a 200-megawatt site in partnership with the U.K. utility Scottish and Southern Energy, presently the country’s top renewable energy generator. Construction of the projects could begin as early as 2013.
Scotland offers extraordinarily powerful seas, squeezed between a wide-open expanse of the Atlantic and the notoriously raucous North Sea. Waves off the Orkneys’s west coast average two meters and annually exceed 10 meters. Marine energy could provide 15 to 20 percent of the country’s total power needs, according to the London-based Carbon Trust, a government-funded entity supporting low-carbon development. The Orkney-based European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), which includes a test-bed facility, also provides R&D support for such efforts.
If wave and tidal technologies can scale up in Scotland’s waters, marine energy experts say they will find plenty of potential elsewhere, much as the wind turbine technologies nurtured by Denmark in the 1970s and 1980s have gone worldwide. “There’s definitely a global market for both wave and tidal energy, hence the reason that you’ve got big companies looking at it,” says Amaan Lafayette, marine development manager at European power giant E.ON, which won two of the 10 Scottish leases.
The challenges are still significant. The first is proving that the technology is ready for the punishment of the open water, where many wave and tidal prototypes have met their match. For example, the fiberglass rotors on early tidal turbine prototypes installed in New York City’s East River in 2007 were fractured by unexpected turbulence. The following year, Pelamis Wave Power pulled its snake-like 750-kilowatt generators out of Portuguese waters amid technical difficulties.
EMEC director Neil Kermode acknowledges that the entire industry is still “working through a huge list of technical challenges.” But he also sees “huge progress” at Pelamis, which is assembling a second-generation machine for E.ON to be installed at EMEC this summer. E.ON’s Lafayette agrees, and says that this progress explains why Pelamis’s technology will be used at three of the 10 Scottish sites, including E.ON’s.