16 July 2005

Blue energy: sea snakes, stingrays and lagoons

By Andrew Boswell

I recently joined thousands marching for climate justice at Gleneagles. The G8 climate communiqué shows sadly, that our voices were not heard - it triply fails the future by not setting emissions targets, relying on long-term technological fixes, and downplaying the role of renewables now.

Yet, Britain is really well placed to exploit renewables along our 10,000 kilometre coastline with its large tidal range. Graham Sinden, from Oxford's Environmental Change Institute says wind, tidal and wave power could provide 40% of the UK's power needs. Whilst, the Open University's, Dr David Elliott, suggests that potentially as much as 68% of UK electricity could be generated using just tidal and wave:
  • Tidal current turbines - underwater 'wind' turbines on the sea bed (20%),
  • Wave energy (20%),
  • Tidal barrages (20%), and
  • Tidal basins and lagoons where water is trapped at high tide and released to drive turbines at low tide (8%)
With real investment and political will, 'blue energy' can make a huge contribution to UK energy security.

Why, then, is the Government's public stance on blue energy so 'low key'? Can one smell the carbon rich, whiff of the lobby power that the big power generators have with the DTI and Government? Or even the Caesium-137 whiff of nuclear industry lobbying that was recently exposed in the New Statesman?

To great media fanfare, new Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks, announced £40m funding for the "Carbon Abatement Technology Strategy" last month. This is to research capturing carbon dioxide output from coal fired power stations and storing it in depleted North Sea oil and gas fields - a technology which might possibly start delivering by 2015.

Compare that to the quiet DTI announcement last August of £42m funding to kickstart large scale tidal and wave schemes into the national grid within 3 years, even though then Energy Minister, Mike O'Brien, said "The sector is at a critical point in its development from pipe dream, through R&D, to commercial viability."

Like preventative medicine, it is surely better not to create the (carbon) disease in the first place, than fix it afterwards. I am hugely concerned that renewables were marginalised by the G8, and that only a paltry £42m. has been made available to the innovative UK tidal/wave industry, now on the brink of producing carbon free Mega Watts.

This sunrise industry needs funding far more that the wealthy carbon based energy industries, who can afford their own research. Research, which might, only might, develop mechanisms, of dubious safety, to hide their dirty waste on a timescale of decades.

Exemplar UK blue energy demonstrators are already turning into real commercial enterprises. Take the June 16th announcement of the first phase of a 20MW wave farm to power 15,000 Portuguese homes using Pelamis 'Sea Snake', which flexs and bends with the waves, and is developed by Edinburgh based Ocean Power Delivery Ltd.

When twenty such farms could power a city such as Edinburgh, one has to ask Mr Wicks, why the first large scale use of this UK developed technology is not in the UK itself?

In our region, Essex based Trident Energy Limited has received initial Government and private funding and are now seeking major backing for its first full scale sea trial of systems which may scale to 100MW.

Meanwhile 1MW underwater turbines are being developed by Bristol based Marine Current Turbines Limited and East Yorkshire-based Lunar Energy Ltd, off North Devon and Orkney.

A novel oscillating hydrofoil tidal device, the Stringray, sits on the seabed. Succesfully tested in a 150kW prototype, the project is now stalled, seeking funding for a 5MW version.

On a larger scale, a 60MW lagoon scheme is proposed for Swansea Bay which would, according to WS Atkins Engineering, generate electricity competitively at an estimate 3.4 pence/kWhour.

Tidal fences or barrages offer exciting, large scale developments. A proposed fence between islands in the Philippines is expected to generate up to 2200 MW (peak), equivalent of two nuclear power plants. The President of the Vancouver company behind this scheme, travelled to London early this year for key meetings with the UK's emerging tidal energy sector and the DTI - is it possible the UK could have the foresight to invest in such a large scale scheme here?

A last thought, as the EU and G8 try to convince Iran to give up their nuclear program, why don't they offer the Iranians the latest renewable technologies and the engineering expertise? Their nuclear skills came from the West. Why not help them now build a renewables industry to meet their energy demands? Surely Lagoons, Sea Snakes, and Stingrays in the Persian Gulf are better than nuclear reactors?