Wave power struggling to deliver?

Scotland has 10% of Europe’s wave power potential, and 25% of its offshore wind and tidal power potential. Ministers therefore believe that the opportunities for Scotland are enormous. However, potential is one thing, delivering viable technologies is another.

In this context the Scottish Government is undoubtedly pleased to be able to approve plans for the world’s largest wave power scheme to be developed off the coast of the Western Isles. Aquamarine Power will develop a 40-megawatt wave farm, using their Oyster system, off the north-west coast of Lewis. Aquamarine Power, said: “This is a significant milestone for our company. The goal of our industry is to become commercial, and to do this we need two things: reliable technologies and a route to market. Our engineers are currently working hard on getting the technology right and we now have a site where we can install our first small farm, with a larger-scale commercial build out in the years ahead”.

pelamis-wave-power11

Another technology is the Pelamis ‘sea snake’ system that is being tested off the Orkney coast. ScottishPower Renewables recently reported on progress with testing. The latest enhancements are vital to ensure that the costs of generating electricity from wave power continue to fall, in order to become cost competitive with other sources of offshore renewable energy.

Alan Mortimer, Head of Innovation at ScottishPower Renewables, said: “The output of the device is steadily increasing as experience is gained and as the controller is fine-tuned for maximum energy extraction. We anticipate further significant improvements over the next 12 months, with the remainder of the test plan focused on optimising the power produced in the full range of sea-states in order to progress the technology towards commercially-viable status.”

Then the US tidal power company ResHydro has announced plans to set up operations in Scotland. The company will be supported by a £100,000 award from Scottish Enterprise and will work in partnership with the University of Strathclyde. Establishing a base in Scotland will allow the firm to develop its hydrokinetic energy generation device.

The problem is that all this is still slow progress. Pelamis has now been in development for 15 years, with the second generation launched in 2010.

Bringing the technology to a viable market state is also a concern for the industry lobby group Scottish Renewables. They say, “Scottish Renewables has been calling on the government to ensure our wave energy sector secures adequate levels of vital capital support. We have set ourselves on a course to be an international centre of excellence for marine energy, and the Lewis wave array is a significant milestone on that journey, but the future is far from certain.”

As these developments are based on the islands they also require cheap grid access. Scottish Renewables is therefore calling urgently on the UK and Scottish governments to intervene and bring down charges to connect to the grid, which are estimated to be up to seven times higher on the islands than the mainland. However, SSE has announced that it will not be able to commission work on a Western Isles subsea electricity cable, costing more than £700 million, before 2017.

So, still plenty of potential, but still a big question mark over the technology, cost and commercial viability of wave power. It certainly won’t make much of a contribution to the 2020 Scottish renewables target.

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