LONDON – In mid-May, a prototype wave energy converter weighing 38 tons arrived in Orkney, an archipelago in the waters north of mainland Scotland.
Later that summer, the bright yellow, 20-meter-long kit – called the Blue X – will be shipped to one of the test sites at the European Ocean Energy Center for its first test drives.
The Blue X was developed by a company called Mocean Energy and is the latest technology being put through its paces at EMEC in Orkney.
Many other companies have tested the site over the years. These include the Scottish Orbital Marine Power, which is working on the world’s most powerful tidal turbine, the Spain-based Magallanes Renovables tidal power plant and ScottishPower Renewables, which are part of the Iberdrola Group.
There are many reasons businesses come to Orkney – but two are particularly important: heavy waves and tides.
“These natural resources are … second to none,” EMEC commercial director Matthew Finn told CNBC in a telephone interview.
“What is really unique about Orkney is that you have these high-energy parts next to pretty sheltered harbors and bays,” he added.
“And in the middle of Orkney is Scapa Flow, one of the largest sheltered anchorages in Europe, if not the world, so you can move from these … high-energy resources to fairly harmless, sheltered environments.”
This is important when it comes to the research and development phase of projects. Finn commented, “If you need to run maintenance cycles or do something with your device, getting from the ports and ports to the test sites and back is pretty quick, so I think that’s a massive natural benefit.”
Put ocean energy on the map
Since its inception in 2003, EMEC has become a major hub for wave and tidal power development, helping put the UK at the center of the planet’s burgeoning marine energy sector.
“EMEC was founded as a flagship organization of sorts with the idea that if you could invest a lot in a facility it would reduce the time, cost and risk of getting these technologies to market,” said Finn.
To date, £ 36 million (US $ 50.98 million) has been invested in EMEC. Donors include the Scottish Government, UK Government, European Union, Orkney Islands Council, The Carbon Trust and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
In addition to miles of coastline and abundant natural resources, institutions like EMEC draw on Britain’s long history of maritime industry and leading academic institutions.
“There are a lot of legacies from other sectors, oil and gas is one, but aquaculture (too); a lot of engineering disciplines that are really strong,” explained Finn, “and the universities are reaching for such things and pumping a lot of innovation and ideas and people into it. “
The latter point was made clear earlier this year when it was announced that around £ 7.5 million of public funding would be used to support the development of eight wave energy projects led by UK universities.
The importance of testing
Cameron McNatt is the managing director of Mocean Energy. Speaking to CNBC, he explained how his company, which has offices in Scotland and whose £ 3.3m manufacturing and testing program was backed by Wave Energy Scotland, would use EMEC to test the giant Blue X wave energy converter the coming weeks and months.
First, what he called the “shakedown test” would take place in the sheltered waters of Scapa Flow.
“Then it will move to the larger, open Atlantic site of Billia Croo, where it will really see some pretty serious waves and generate more electricity,” he added. “We’re going to test … power generation, reliability, survivability.”
Billia Croo, a grid-connected system, is described by EMEC as “one of the highest wave energy potentials in Europe”.
According to the organization, the average significant wave height is between 2 and 3 meters, with the highest wave on EMEC records being 18 meters.
Regarding how Mocean Energy’s technology could be used in real-world scenarios, McNatt said it focuses on powering operations related to the oil and gas sector.
“While it might be a bit of fun turning renewable energy into oil and gas, there is a real demand,” he said. “Operators are trying to reduce their carbon footprint and switch to … cleaner energy.”
“We see this as a stepping stone and a way to develop … bigger technologies,” he added.
While Orkney is now established as a major hub for testing wave and tidal systems, the UK marine energy sector is also looking to play a bigger international role.
In an interview with CNBC, Robert Norris, Head of Communication at the retail association RenewableUK, tried to clarify this point.
“As an island nation, we have the best source of marine energy in Europe,” he said via email.
“We already sell our marine energy technology worldwide,” he added, citing the example of Nova Innovation, headquartered in Scotland, which exports tidal turbines to Canada.
In some areas, the potential of ocean energy may be exciting, but the current footprint is small compared to other renewable technologies like sun and wind.
Recent figures from Ocean Energy Europe show that last year only 260 kilowatts of tidal power capacity was added in Europe while only 200 kW of wave power was installed.
In comparison, according to the industry association WindEurope, 14.7 gigawatts of wind energy capacity were installed in Europe in 2020.
Even so, tidal and wave power could play an important role in the years to come as countries seek to decarbonize their energy mix and meet ambitious emissions reduction targets.
For example, the European Commission wants the capacity of marine energy technologies to reach 100 megawatts by 2025 and around 1 gigawatts by 2030.
Back on the other side of the canal, discussions continue on the role of ocean energy in the UK, with cutting costs seen as key to keeping the sector thriving. In a report released earlier this month, RenewableUK urged the government to also set a target of 1 gigawatt of ocean energy.
The London-based organization added: “Much like floating wind, a 1 GW target for ocean energy set in the 2030s would not only signal the world of confidence in ocean energy, it would also demonstrate the UK’s commitment to it Technologies are an inexpensive solution that others can adopt. “