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Environment Breaking With Tradition The Guardian
18 February 2004

Using waves to generate electricity has long been dismissed as uneconomical. But Paul Brown and John Vidal report on a plethora of new plans to harness the power of seas, rivers and tides....

In the early 1980s, wave power was going to be the bright new future for energy, but in a government evaluation of how much the electricity would cost to produce, someone moved a decimal point -- and made it 10 times more expensive.

comparative wave strengths

Years later, when the "mistake" was discovered, the government had already abandoned wave research, while the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) continued to pour money into design and development of the nuclear industry. If the decimal point had not been moved, the history of renewable development in Britain might have been completely different.

But, although it has taken 20 years, wave power has made a comeback. It has been joined by other tide-driven renewables to make the untapped power of the sea one of the greatest prospects for jobs and a new industrial base for coastal Britain.

wave generation and hubs

The suspicion of the DTI and its attitude to renewables was dispelled last week with the enthusiasm of Stephen Timms, the energy minister, at a conference in Bristol on wave and tidal energy. The government is launching a £200,000 campaign to encourage planners and industry to get positive about investing in renewables. The DTI is also putting money into what is called a wave hub, an undersea device into which manufacturers of floating electricity generators using wave power can plug their machines.

The £500,000 cost is in effect a subsidy. By providing a feed to the national grid that developers can rent, they are avoiding the crippling capital cost of doing it themselves. The developers can recoup the rent by selling electricity to the national grid, while at the same time testing in real waves whether their designs will stand up to the rigours of survival at sea.

Instead of one of two possible designs of utilising sea power that were being tested in the 1980s, there are now dozens. There are those on the sea shore, using the power of the waves as they reach the end of their journey, but larger scale possibilities come from machines anchored out to sea. Once a device is proved to work effectively, hundreds of the same could be harnessed together, providing wave farms.

Some believe that attaching floating wind turbines would further increase the efficiency. Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace, says: "There is the same buzz around these technologies as there was about offshore wind three or four years ago."

Eight developers have been chosen to take part in a scheme to evaluate wave energy. The government-funded Carbon Trust is putting £2.5m into a marine energy challenge, aimed for completion by the end of the financial year 2004/05.

Of the successful bidders, four device developers are from overseas - two from the US, one from Denmark and the other from the Netherlands. The challenge is designed to attract foreign investment into the West Country and make the area a world leader for the technology.

They involve machines that use the rise and fall of the waves to push air and water through turbines.

So far, it is impossible to predict how much electricity from a fully developed wave industry would cost, but the government's estimates are around 4p per unit, compared with 7.5p that consumers currently pay through their meter, and probably less than new nuclear build. Wave power at this price could provide 10% of Britain's energy needs, but it could be more; no one will really know until the work is done.

According to Matthew Spencer, chief executive of South West Renewable Energy, which organised the Bristol conference, a two-metre wave has roughly the same power as a small saloon car engine. The problem, he admits, is getting that power from nine miles out and into the grid.

But wave power is only part of the story. Underwater tidal currents, which have enormous power, are also proving to have exciting potential in the West Country - and in lots of other places where tides squeeze between islands, from the Shetlands to the Channel Islands.

The first in the water is being run by Marine Current Turbines in the Bristol Channel at Lynmouth. It is like an underwater wind turbine and began operating last summer. Initial results are promising. A full-scale test project will be installed between now and 2005, using bigger machines that each generate a rating of 750kW to 1.2MW, which will be grid connected. They are too deep underwater to interfere with shipping and, unlike wind farms, should not generate environmental controversy. In addition, there is a variety of schemes to take advantage of the West Country's remarkable rise and fall in tides.

The advantage of tides over wind is that the rise and fall, and the undersea currents they generate, are predictable years in advance, enabling producers to know how much electricity they can expect. It solves one of the great criticisms of renewables - that they provide only an intermittent service.

Not that this is any longer a valid argument, as renewables engineer Allan Jones, from Woking council, Sur rey, has demonstrated. By harnessing together solar, combined heat and power, and gas generation, he has ensured security of supply by adjusting supply to demand as it fluctuates. He advocates that any "spare" electricity being generated by renewables should be used to manufacture hydrogen, which can be used to power fuel cells, either to run buses or create more electricity the following day.

Meanwhile, the potential of the river Severn to become one of Britain's biggest providers of renewable electricity, and to spearhead regeneration in Wales especially, is also being explored. The river has a 40-foot tidal range, and a dam across it has been proposed for more than 25 years. Although studies concluded in 1987 that it could generate 12% of Britain's electricity, it was shelved because of the enormous costs and the inevitable environmental outcry.

Now a new study suggests that there is a far cheaper and less damaging way to generate renewable power from the river. The idea is known as "tidal lagoons" - large, rock-walled impoundments that trap water and release it through turbines. According to the report by Friends of the Earth Cymru, based on industry data, an area equivalent to 11 miles by 11 miles could provide 6% of Britain's electricity demand (2.75 GW) - the equivalent of three or four nuclear power stations. Moreover, it would impound an area 40% smaller than the barrage, cost far less and would not impede shipping or damage the ecologically sensitive inter-tidal areas of the estuary.

Developers at Tidal Electric, involved in the concept of tidal lagoons, have met Timms, who is positive about the idea. A team of engineers lead by WS Atkins, Britain's largest engineering firm, and ABP mer, the research arm of Associated British Ports, is designing a 30MW offshore tidal power project for Swansea Bay, in the western part of the Severn estuary. The team will report soon on the feasibility of this specific project, including output, construction techniques, and environmental issues. If a scheme is built in Swansea Bay it would be the world's first and applicable in many places, including Liverpool bay, the Thames estuary and Morecambe bay.

Paul Brown
Environment Correspondent
Atlantic Swell Pushes the West Country Towards Wave Power The Guardian
10 February 2004

Plans to make the West Country the world centre of the wave-power industry and plug in an array of floating prototype electricity producing wave machines to the national grid were announced yesterday. The South West Development Agency believes that there could be hundreds of jobs in making wave-power machines to take advantage of the Atlantic swell.

The research and development of a series of machines is well advanced, but scaling them up to produce commercial quantities of power is the next big hurdle.

To solve the problem the West Country is to build, nine miles off-shore, what it calls a wave hub, basically a series of giant sockets on the sea bed into which wave machines can be plugged to feed power to Devon and Cornwall.

areas of wave-hub interest

The industry hopes to produce power by 2006 and create between 800 and 1,800 manufacturing jobs by 2020.

By that time wave power should be producing between 4% and 7% of the West Country's power needs. The potential for wave and tidal energy combined is enough to provide all the the region's needs.

Government experts have estimated that wave power will cost about 4p a unit, which is a third more than electricity from coal or gas, but without the pollution.

Matthew Spencer, chief executive of the South West Renewable Energy Agency, said: "There is the same power in two metres of wave as there is in the engine of a small family car like my Ford Fiesta. What we have to do is harness that and bring it ashore to the national grid."

The first stage of the proposal, costing £500,000, is to find out the best location off Cornwall for the hub.

The problem for developers is making devices that can stand the worst storms while at the same time being in the best place to take advantage of maximum wave energy.

Off the Scilly Isles the average wave comes in at 40 kilowatts a metre, and near Lundy Island about half that.

The Lundy Island location would provide enough power and a position relatively sheltered from the big storms.

Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace, said: "There is the same buzz around these technologies as there was around offshore wind three or four years ago.

"Wave power is in effect con centrated wind power. There will be waves even when there is little wind. It will form an essential part of our future energy mix."

wave hub

So far 18 manufacturers have expressed an interest in plugging into wave hub.

There are three types of machine at an advanced stage, each using different ideas, which are expected to be frontrunners.

One being developed by Ocean Power Delivery is a device like an articulated snake which has hydraulic pumps at the joints. It is being tested off Scotland. The snakes use the power of the waves to generate electricity.

A second floating device, for the Orecon company, also British, has an oscillating water column which pushes air through a turbine as the waves rise and fall, again generating electricity.

The third, which is from Wave Dragon, a Danish company, has a barge-shaped structure which is overtopped by the waves, providing a body of water to flood out through a turbine in the bottom, producing power as it does so.

This has been tested successfully in the Baltic but needs the more testing in the seas of the Atlantic to see if it would work commercially.

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