Last month, 860 people from across the globe gathered in Edinburgh to debate and push forwards the development of wave and tidal energy. Guests from 27 countries (including the UK) were brought together as part of the International Conference on Ocean Energy (ICOE 16). Companies, Governments and Academics attended from recognised ocean energy leaders such as the UK, France and Canada, but also countries such as China, Chile, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand and many more. The event was addressed by a European Commissioner and Ministers from Scotland and Nova Scotia and senior officials from many Governments around the world.
What all these countries have in common is a desire to accelerate the shift to a low carbon future, and an interest in capturing the substantial wave and tidal resource which sits, just in reach off all our coastlines.
In the last decade the world has seen a massive rise in renewables, with solar and wind now common and often major players in most electricity markets. Most countries underestimated the growth of these technologies, with consumer pressure and cost reductions leading to faster adoption than most energy experts anticipated. Last year Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported how renewables accounted for over 50% of investment in new energy capacity, a significant shift underlining the level of confidence and the mainstream nature of these technologies.
In the UK and increasingly abroad we have seen rapid growth of offshore wind, with innovation and deployment pulling costs down aggressively. Our future is going to see a significant role for solar and wind. What is not clear though is the scale and pace of development of other technologies, such as wave and tidal.
Right now wave and tidal sits at a critical point. Early technological optimism has set back the industry because rash over ambitious promises could not be fulfilled. But this ambition has driven a lot of learning, from successes and failures.
Just along from the Edinburgh Conference Centre, the National Museum of Scotland is building a permanent science and technology display to mark Scottish scientific achievements. Here will sit things like Sir Ian Wilmot’s Dolly the Sheep and information on the work of Sir Peter Higgs, who famously proposed the Higgs Boson, which was later confirmed in the Large Hadron Collider after many years of international scientific effort at CERN.
Alongside this will sit Salter’s Duck, the original wave machine which first demonstrated that electricity could be effectively generated by our seas. Stephen Salter proved his device at the University of Edinburgh which today is home to the world’s most advanced wave tank, Flo-wave, which can test devices in different sea states. Visitors can visit the tank and see technicians combine different sea characteristics to produce standing waves, perfect storms and one in 100 year events.
The day before ICOE16, Scottish Development International and Highlands & Islands Enterprise flew almost 100 of our international guests to Orkney, to visit what is probably the ocean energy equivalent of CERN – the European Marine Energy Centre. Active for over 10 years, EMEC has been home at one point or other to most of the globe’s wave and tidal prototypes, and through this has advanced our knowledge of how to capture wave and tidal energy.
While there have been many breakthroughs in wave and tidal, what has yet to happen is demonstrable cost reduction, and many of the conversations at ICOE16 were about how to deliver this. These pioneering technology companies are painfully aware that rapid progress is expected, and the need for rapid decarbonisation means that they will not have the luxury of time afforded to their technology forebears. The first commercial tidal stream project – Meygen - will begin construction next year off the north Scottish coastline. A lot is riding on the experience of this project, though other tidal companies are waiting in the wings also confident about their own devices.
To prove the existence of the Higgs Boson governments funded the international science community over to the tune of $13 billion. The discovery is important in opening up our understanding of particle physics. This applied research is critical to how we advance as an innovative economy.
In contrast the successors to Stephen Salter have proved the viability of wave and tidal on much smaller budgets, and with significantly more private sector investment. Every £1 of public money has levered in a further £6 of private investment, and brought us to the point of first commercial deployment.
The case for wave and tidal is still to be proven, but for me the pairing of Higgs and Salter in the National Museum is significant. To advance we need to take risks, and we need to follow up high level research with applied learning. From Cornwall to Kirkwall there are many internationally recognised companies hard at work to prove their ideas and make wave and tidal a reality. The international visitors to Scotland came to learn about this experience, and the exchange of information shows how we can all benefit from international cooperation. Talking to international delegates I was struck by how Scotland was judged as leading the field. Over coffee after a morning of discussion one Canadian delegate said, “well you guys are really going for it aren’t you.”
However, while we receive plaudits from abroad for our advanced research, the case for support here at home is less clear. Our industry needs to acknowledge that it has more steps to take, and has much research it needs to conduct. However, we should not shy away from pride in our record of learning and achievement.
While ICOE16 was addressed by many governments, notable was the absence of any UK Minister or UK official. The UK can be proud of what is has helped deliver – a world leading industry still confident of delivering a commercial breakthrough. On the back of national research from governments in the UK, Portugal and France, we are now seeing ambitious European funding support being assembled which our UK companies are well placed to capitalise on. Today, our Government is actively promoting innovation and further research funding for emerging energy technologies. It would be right to question the time taken for wave and tidal to deliver, but it would be wrong to conclude that it do not have a future. This is true when we consider how other technologies are allowed significant amounts development time, and benefit from long term support programmes aimed at helping them deliver. And it is particularly true when we are held in such high international regard for our world class research and industrial leadership.