Opinion: Picking winners – the future for wave energy and other technologies?

SEA POWER: A wave energy  converter is towed into position in the waters between Orkney and Caithness
SEA POWER: A wave energy converter is towed into position in the waters between Orkney and Caithness
Opinion by Energy Voice

Throughout my career I’ve been involved to some extent or other in the development and commercialisation of technology.

So, when faced with a selection of technology ideas to back I am acutely aware of the difficulties involved in sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Believe me. It isn’t easy because the parameters you need to consider are many and varied and, of course, instinct and experience also count for a lot.

In the case of renewable energy technologies, picking winners isn’t any easier than it is in any other technology sector with the exception perhaps of oil and gas which is notoriously conservative.

However, the big difference is that the maritime renewables sector is still relatively young. This means that the market is still very receptive to the introduction of new ideas.

Leaving hydro-power to one side, renewables are still an evolving industry with a very long way to go before they reach anything that even remotely looks like maturity.

What this means is that the opportunity for fresh ideas and new technologies remains pretty good. In fact, in Scotland and the UK the opportunity is absolutely huge because we have developed very little so far.

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said at the recent climate change talks in Lima: “Climate change presents one of the greatest economic opportunities of all time on earth.”

He’s right but as far as the solutions go it’s inevitable that, as with every technology cluster, there will be casualties along the way.

Remember video tapes, vinyl LP records, cameras that used film, cathode ray tube TVs? All gone or in my case, shoved in the attic because I’m a hoarder!

We therefore shouldn’t get over anxious about the potential loss of Pelamis or indeed the cutbacks at Aquamarine. While I regret the loss of the jobs at these companies it is undoubtedly part of the process of sifting out what’s going to work and what isn’t.

It’s why the setting up of this new organisation “Wave Energy Scotland” is actually quite important. We need a mechanism for making use of the experience gained and for undertaking a fundamental rethink of how we exploit what everyone would agree is a potentially massive energy resource.

In short, we need a scientific and engineering think-tank that will take a fresh look at the issue and it should take its time doing that.

Before cutting metal again we need to be sure that any new technology solutions meet expectations particularly where those old problems of energy density and cost per megawatt are concerned.

Of course, the wave energy system on the island of Islay which was developed by Wavegen is, I believe, still operational despite Wavegen itself being bought and all its intellectual property shipped out to Germany.

So why did Wavegen get snapped up by a foreign buyer? Probably because its technology works and it is not vulnerable to ending up on the beach, mainly because it already is on the beach!

From this you may gather that I’m not a great fan of either the Pelamis or Aquamarine solutions and you’d be right. For a variety of reasons I just don’t see them as mainstream providers of energy to the grid and because of that and as much as it might impact on a lot of individuals involved I would not encourage the Scottish or UK Governments to put any more money into these technologies.

If they’d been sold as “off grid” devices generating power for smaller island communities either here or overseas and where electricity demand is not that high then I think they might have a market.

Equally, if they’d been tied in to other technologies such as hydrogen production with the option to turn that hydrogen into ammonia for energy storage or use as a liquid fuel then that also would have provided a beneficial “selling point” and a considerable operating advantage. It’s then possible to look at wave energy as part of an energy system rather than just an electricity generator.

It’s not actually pie in the sky. Prof Lee Cronin and his team are undertaking some very smart work at Glasgow University on much more efficient hydrogen production techniques.

Hydrogen is, of course, one of the two main constituents of ammonia which fortunately, we already know how to make in huge quantities.

But to complement this, an R&D project, run by Prof Bill David of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, has resulted in a compact and highly efficient “cracker” to decompose ammonia (NH3) back into hydrogen and nitrogen allowing the hydrogen to be used as a fuel.

Bingo – wave energy to new fuel!

More on these hydrogen projects later in the year but a joint project between these guys and Wave Energy Scotland would make sense, wouldn’t it?

Of course, such technologies could also be applied to wind turbines and other renewable energy sources as well as including small scale tidal such as that being developed by Nova Innovation, also in Glasgow.

But it’s this sort of work that government should be prepared to get involved in and support financially.

We need some joined-up thinking on energy technology strategy and we also need desperately to start building up an industrial base in renewables rather than continuing to rely on imported technologies.

As to Pelamis and Aquamarine, let their survival or otherwise depend on private sector input. The government has done its job by pump priming their work and supporting their projects. It was worth it because it’s provided lessons and much needed experience. If the market wants these technologies then it will pay for them.

The Scottish Government should now make sure Wave Energy Scotland benefits from those lessons by perhaps pulling in some of the people involved in those projects and – if they’re still around – from Wavegen as well.

We know there’s a huge amount of energy available from waves but I’m not yet convinced we’re even close to working out how to extract it effectively. Isn’t tidal energy better? Rotating equipment is well understood and tides are precise.

That said, I haven’t mentioned Siemens MCT which is now up for sale. Lots to learn from that technology as well but would I buy it? Probably not. If I had the money to do that I think I’d rather invest it in next generation technologies which is what the Scottish Government should do.

A happy and prosperous 2015 to you all. Oh, and the rapid return of $100 oil.