A Dutchman, a Scot and a Korean

It came out of left field – I mean the £500million conditional deal between Lunar Energy and the Koreans to manufacture and deploy tidal (marine current) turbine technology developed by Aberdeen offshore oilfield company Rotech Engineering.

Lunar (with Rotech in tow) had unobtrusively negotiated with Korean Midland Power Company an absolute world-beater – the construction of a 300Megawatt tidal turbine farm in the turbulent Wando Hoenggan waterway off South Korea.

For Energy readers unfamiliar with the news, the plan is that full resource research and feasibility be completed by July, 2008, with the installation of a 1MW pilot plant by March, 2009.

Assuming success with the trials, then manufacture of a fleet of significantly larger commercial Rotech units would be carried out under licence by Hyundai Samho Heavy Industries (HSHI), with the Aberdeen company providing design optimisation and specialist components.

It is said that the Lunar farm would produce enough energy to power 200,000 Korean homes by December, 2015, assuming completion on time.

The deal struck by Lunar with the Koreans eclipses every contract ever clinched by any tidal or wave device anywhere in the world – and there have been precious few.

With the notable exception of the 200MW Kaipara Harbour project in New Zealand, which would also be based on tidal current turbines but is still at proposal stage, they don’t even add up to a few tens of Megs. Current expectation is that Kaipara might complete around 2018. Developer Crest Energy hopes to secure the go-ahead this year.

However, there is a large tidal barrage scheme under construction that we barely know about here in the West – and it, too, is in South Korea. With a capacity of 254MW, enough to power the nearby city of Ansan, the Sihwa Lake barrage would serve as a major emblem for the clean-energy movement now gathering momentum in South Korea, which ranks as the world’s 10th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Construction started in 2005 and commissioning is scheduled for 2009. However, tidal barrages are the marine equivalent of a hydro dam rather than autonomous devices such as Rotech’s turbine, which sits on the seafloor and has a cassette-style, removable generator unit.

The Koreans have a further 500MW barrage project under consideration. This would involve building dams between a number of coastal islands in the Korea Strait, which is the narrow stretch of water between South Korea and Japan where tidal velocities are among the most powerful anywhere. Research has demonstrated currents with tides flowing towards the north-east exceeding 120cm per second, while non-tidal currents were found to range over 45cm per second.

There is only one large-scale tidal project operational thus far, and that was completed more than 40 years ago. I am referring to the 225MW La Rance tidal barrage that started generating in 1967.

There is a much smaller tidal project (16MW) operational in the Bay of Funday, off eastern Canada.

Aside from Korea, there are further barrage-style schemes mooted elsewhere in the world: the giant 8,000MW Severn Barrage that has been on the cards for several decades and which has resurfaced, and a 2,200MW “tidal fence” in the Philippines – it, too, has been floating around for years as an idea.

Prior to Korea, Lunar had only one agreement on its books, and that is with E.ON UK to instal a battery of eight 1MW Rotech units somewhere off the UK west coast by the end of 2009 – most likely in the St George’s Channel, off the north-west corner of Anglesey, or in the Bristol Channel area, where tidal velocities are significant.

I take my hat off to Ken Stewart and Hector Susman at Rotech (they are also directors of Lunar) – Ken for his astute patience as a businessman, Hector for his brilliance as a physicist, backed by enormous practical experience in shipbuilding/marine engineering and developing subsea dredging kit and smart downhole turbine motors for oil&gas-related applications.

The Rotech tidal turbine is intrinsically simple, draws heavily on their experience in the offshore industry and is designed for series manufacturing in a variety of standard sizes.

Susman is the brains behind the turbine. He has been working on its development for several years. Assuming that the Korea project does complete, it should place Lunar/Rotech head and shoulders above European competition and, in one fell swoop, establish seafloor marine current turbines as a credible technology.

While there is much rhetoric about the UK/Scotland leading the way and the Pentland Firth possessing the potential to become the “Saudi Arabia” of tidal power, thus far, progress has generally been poor on the tidal and wave technologies front. Only one semi-commercial device has been manufactured here this far – Ocean Power Delivery’s Pelamis wave machine.

That said, at least the UK does have the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Orkney, and there is Wave Hub down in the English West Country which we have commented on in the past.

But perhaps the real challenge is getting technologies such as Rotech’s turbine accepted on a commercial scale in our own British back yard, rather than generating concepts.

Frankly, I don’t know how this is going to be achieved. There has to be buy-in from fishermen, other mariners, port authorities, NGOs and bodies such as Scottish Natural Heritage, but if personal experience in the context of offshore wind is anything to go by, it will turn into a slow, expensive, painful drag – even for well-intentioned projects.

Britain is shuffling towards a sustainable energy future. That’s simply not good enough.

By no stretch of the imagination are we leading, which is a great pity as we unquestionably have the talent. Mercifully, we do have geniuses like Hector Susman and the patient Ken Stewart.

However, theirs is an exceptionally rare jewel – a blend of nous and immense offshore oil&gas experience spiced with a willingness to take calculated risks to not just develop a new technology, but if Korea is anything to go by, actually make it big-time commercial.