The Long-Term Promise of Ocean Power

Ian Bryden

For those of us who were involved in wave power research in the 1970s and 1980s, it has been a very long time to see dreams of energy from the seas becoming a reality. Even the new generation of entrepreneurs and researchers must occasionally feel that the dream remains tantalisingly over the horizon. However, very real progress has been made in the last 10 years. We have seen prototype wave and tidal current energy devices tested at full scale and the findings from these tests being used to revise system designs. We now have a much better appreciation of the challenges that must be overcome before costs can be reduced to compare with onshore wind.

The prizes for those working to develop commercial marine energy are considerable. The theoretical offshore wave resource in Europe and the rest of the world is massive. In principle, for example, the average rate of wave energy incidence on the west-facing coastal contours of the United Kingdom and Ireland exceeds 50 gigawatts. The UK, Irish and Scottish governments are highly aware of this, which explains their funding for research, development and implementation of wave energy. The achievable technical resource and the commercially practical resource will, of course, be significantly less than this and will be dependent upon the identification of technology and constraints upon development.

We know that full-scale systems are only now demonstrating their capability at sea. Machines have to face massive forces in winter storms, which requires design for resilience. They must also maximize generation in modest conditions, which demands design for system sensitivity. The difficulties of achieving these apparently contradictory aims have occupied the minds and bank balances of device developers for decades. Only now, however, is full-scale experience becoming available from work at the European Marine Energy Center in Orkney in the United Kingdom and other test sites, as they become available. Providing that development funding remains available, it is likely that the next stage of device demonstration will be small arrays of machines redesigned as a result of experience. Once credible commercial machines have been demonstrated as reliable, then the usual “laws” applying to the economics of early-stage commercial development will apply and costs will come down as installed capacity increases — but how quickly and how far are interesting questions.

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More than just cables, energy and water

It is more than just cables, energy and water says Marcello Graziano, MERIKA Research Associate at SAMS, UHI.


‘The world’s first community-owned tidal project has gone live today.’ 

So was announced by Community Energy Scotland and the Scottish Government on May 21st, [1][2] after the 30kW device placed in 30 meters of water started generating electricity, sending it through a 1 km-long cable onshore to Yell, Shetlands.

WavesAs much as the project represents a great achievement for the community of Yell, I cannot avoid asking myself if the direct and proactive involvement of the community might have far-reaching implications for the way energy projects are conceptualized, planned and developed in Scotland. Because of its proactivity to venture in to a new, risky, business, with no ‘royalty’ or ‘lease’ scheme involved, has this community become an entrepreneur in the context of sustainability? The way in which this project will progress further, along with the other local initiatives (e.g. a small wind farm and the local industrial estate)[3] will show if and how much local communities, benefit when engaging directly with energy production. However, these benefits may be more than just savings on the electricity bill. The availability of a local electricity supply could attract or strengthen local businesses and activities, thus increasing the economic base of the community.

For this to happen, a turbine is not enough, but is a good step in the right direction.

Marcello Graziano is a Research Associate at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS).




MERIKA FP7 Project

MERIKA (Marine Energy Research Innovation and Knowledge Accelerator) is an ambitious initiative by UHI (University of the Highlands and the Islands), located in Scotland and the UK’s outermost region. The project revolves around the concept of turning the UHI Faculty of Science, Health and Engineering into a reference research and innovation hub for all of Europe on the theme of marine energy. Funded by the EU Seventh Framework Programme, the MERIKA Project runs from 2014-2017.