THE development of marine renewable energy has been very close to the frontier of understanding of interactions between energy extraction technology and the very environment it is intended to exploit.
In addition, devices are expected to operate under conditions rather different from traditional offshore and marine systems, and there is little experience to draw on in the development process. Fundamental ongoing research is essential if development is to continue.
While development-related projects such as EMEC have made headlines, there has been a programme of advanced research conducted within Scotland and across the wider UK in which fundamental questions about engineering science which need to be answered before the marine renewable sector can reach its ultimate maturity have been investigated. Within this programme, there have been revolutionary breakthroughs and a radical change in how the research community has operated. In the UK, universities are independent organisations in competition with each other for students and research funding. It is quite wrong to consider them as part of the public sector. They are independent charitable entities responsible for their own financial management.
Academic researchers are expected to deliver externally funded research and, in most institutions, such delivery is considered essential for career progression. A culture of ruthless competition for funds has become the norm, with a level of harsh rivalry, even within institutions, that would surprise and shock many from supposedly more aggressive industrial environments.
Much renewable energy research is funded through such aggressive competition for public and private funding. But recognising that, while such competition has its place, the United Kingdom Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPRC) has implemented an alternative strategy.
In 2003, four multi-institutional research consortia were launched to research into renewable energy. One of these, Supergen (Marine) was formed to specifically deal with wave and tidal current power. The membership of these consortia had been chosen through an exhaustive selection process. Initial expressions of interest were sought and a long list of institutions selected and requested to expand their original expressions into more detailed documents describing proposed work plans. Individuals from this “long list” were then invited to London to make their cases and participate in a complex series of technical sub-meetings.
Out of this, a shortlist of five universities was chosen and invited to submit a full proposal for work. This list consisted of the University of Edinburgh (led by Robin Wallace), Strathclyde University Fraser of Allander Institute (led by Peter McGregor), Heriot-Watt University (led by Julian Wolfram) and The Robert Gordon University (led by me, Ian Bryden).
The group then had to produce a fully costed case for a detailed research programme which would have to be subjected to detailed peer review and defended against a panel of experts drawn internationally from public and private sectors, including other academics. The eventual programme was constructed around three ambitious aims:
Increase knowledge and understanding of the extraction of energy from the sea.
Reduce risk and uncertainty for stakeholders in the development and deployment of technology.
Enable progression of marine technology and energy into true positions in future energy portfolios.
These can be summarised as “identify technical uncertainties which might hinder commercialisation of marine renewable energy by reducing investor confidence, quantify these issues and start the process of reducing their significance”.
And so the foundations were laid for a multi-year, multi-strand programme known as Supergen.