Monday, 4 March 2013

RenewableUK 2013 Wave round-up

Worst joke: In the present financial climate we are in the unfortunate situation of only being able to back one horse. Let's hope it doesn't become horse meat.

Closest to fisticuffs: Martin McAdam (Aquamarine) and Guy Newey (Policy Exchange). The chair Juliet Morris swiftly changed topic when Guy and Martin entered into a lively discussion about whether the global wave energy resource was large enough to justify investment in the sector. 

Doom and Gloom: Apprehension about the electricity market reform dampened the party spirit for both wave and tidal energy: the lack of a stable regulatory framework does not provide the desirable long term strategy message. Likewise, longer-term planning is hindered by uncertainty surrounding austerity and Scottish independence.

There was however a cautious optimism for tidal energy that was notably absent from the wave energy discussions. Perhaps there was a sense that, with limited budgets, the recent industry investment in tidal had dried up the funds available for wave energy? The fear of 'winner takes all' was again expressed in discussions of the outcome of recent EU funding rounds: the two NER300 marine projects in the UK were both tidal. 

The discussion topics were particularly gloomy. There was a bit of soul searching about what wave energy needed to do to remain in the race (to extend the horse metafor). One panelist warned that pushing technology development too fast could lead to failure, and that one highly publicised failure could stall the entire marine renewables industry. There was also bad news that it was not possible to build large wave arrays in the most UK promising sites (Orkney and Hebrides) until the grid capacity was upgraded, and that this was not due to happen in the next few years.

There was a line of questions about what was needed to keep the faith in wave energy. I think that the chair Juliet Morris had intended to prod the discussion in a more upbeat direction, but by then the bad news had sunk in, and the word faith took on uncomfortable associations for me.  In this context, faith means maintaining optimism in the absence of evidence. Unfortunately, another interpretation of faith is maintaining belief despite evidence otherwise, because to let go of that belief would involve questioning basic assumptions about one's identity, values and life purpose. As I have an engineering background, I like to think that my optimism for wave energy is objective, so it was unsettling to hear that having hope for the future of wave power was a matter of faith.

Silver linings: Martin McAdam (Aquamarine) drew enthusiastic applause by announcing that Oyster 800 had been generating continuously for 24 hours. He was clearly delighted. Not to be outdone, Tore Gulli (Fred Olsen) announced that the Lifesaver device has been operating continuously since April 2012. Ross Henderson from Pelamis showed videos that demonstrated improvements in the assembly of Pelamis. He also showcased a mobile dry-dock, and a detailed costings system that would allow Pelamis to pinpoint opportunities for cost reductions.

John Fitzgerald (ESB) provided the much needed good news that the Irish Westwave project had received NER300 funding. Although his presentation and the Westwave website indicate that several wave technologies are being considered, the NER300 site: shows that there is now only only horse in the running: a deep water device that has been tested at EMEC. John also showed how it was possible for a given project, to tabulate cost of electricity against capacity factor and operating costs (expressed as a percentage of capital costs).

Ken Street (Alstom) maintained an upbeat outlook despite the gloomy rhetoric. He had quick come-backs to questions about whether wave energy development was an unnecessary burden on the economy (it would be irresponsible not to fund wave until we know for certain it whether it can contribute to our future economy), and whether limited investment funds would kill off potentially viable technologies with weak marketing strategies (the strong will survive!).

Acknowledgement: I'd like to acknowledge renewableUK's support in allowing me to attend on a concession pass.


  1. I had to laugh at your mention of Martin McAdam (Aquamarine) and Guy Newey (Policy Exchange) getting hot and bothered regarding the potential role of wave power. Martin has always been quick to challenge contrary remarks, even from fellow wave energy proponents. What is clear from their writings is that the Policy Exchange is clueless about wave energy. It sounds like they are too keen on natural gas to be taken seriously.

  2. I must admit, I have no idea what Policy Exchange do; I just know that they must be quite influential if they had a panel member at RenewableUK. It's funny you mentioned natural gas; the lively debate between Martin and Guy about global wave resource actually started with Guy objecting to Martin's claims that the fossil fuel industry was more heavily subsidised than wave energy. It sounded like Martin was providing a comeback to criticism that wave energy was receiving too much UK government funding. Guy pointed out that reducing VAT on natural gas to alleviate fuel poverty was different to paying incentives/funding research on wave energy. If Policy Exchange are very pro-gas then perhaps the heat in the exchange cam from defending gas rather than attacking wave?

    By the way, I asked Guy later why he thought the global wave resource was not very much. He pointed me to this document:

    There's nothing in it that shouts conclusively that wave energy is not worth investing in. Perhaps he is referring to Chart 2, which estimates carbon abatement potential for the UK and worldwide? This suggests that wave is potentially useful for carbon abatement in the UK but has less global potential than LHF ethanol. The paper concludes that wave power is likely to be a smaller global markets than LHF ethanol, but that there is an opportunity for the UK to be the market leaders.