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Blog: Holyrood Renewables Magazine: Blimey, that’s interesting

Article as printed in Holyrood Renewables, published September 11, 2012

Go to any oil town in the world, there’ll be somebody from Aberdeen there, doing business, making money and bringing wealth back to Scotland – in the future, reports Dave Flanagan, you’ll go to ‘marine towns’ and there’ll be a link back to Orkney

“Wave and tidal energy is no longer seen as just a man in a shed with a bright idea,” says Neil Kermode, reflecting on a global sea change in attitudes towards marine energy technology. “This is fast becoming an industry with huge promise. We’ve led the way in Orkney and now the rest of the world is waking up to the potential.”

As managing director of the Orkney-based European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), Kermode is well qualified to gauge the progress of a green energy revolution that has a small Scottish island community at its vanguard.

The pioneering EMEC facility, situated in the town of Stromness on Orkney’s wild Atlantic coast, remains the world’s only fully accredited marine energy test centre. Set up in 2003 with £30m of public sector funding, the centre is now entirely self-financing, operating 14 test berths at its wave and tidal sites in the islands.

Having supported the deployment of more gridconnected devices than at any other single site on the planet – there are 11 currently at various stages of testing in Orkney – EMEC is firmly established as an international centre of excellence in the marine energy field, with its expertise increasingly in demand around the world.

“Our international profile has been steadily rising as a number of global energy challenges have started to come home to roost,” says Kermode, who heads up a 22-strong team at EMEC. “With the problems Japan has experienced in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident in particular and the recognition that fuel prices are getting out of hand, people have been looking around for other ideas, seen what’s going on here in Orkney and said, ‘blimey, that’s interesting’.”

Interesting? Yes. Cheap and simple? No. Harnessing the power of the ocean is a hugely challenging and costly exercise, one that has been compared to the Space Race, or the early days of the nuclear industry. The ocean is a hostile, constantly changing environment, guaranteed to exploit any technological weakness. But developers remain undeterred, encouraged by the results now emerging after a decade of battling the Orcadian elements.

“It just needs patience, vision, determination and resilience,” says Kermode, who is evangelical about the role marine energy could play in saving the planet. “We don’t have to wait until we’ve squeezed the last drip of oil out of the Earth. We need a Plan B in place now. That’s the opportunity we’ve got. We can see the downturn that’s going on and we can see we need to do something else.”

If the steady pace of development in the marine energy sector continues, then wave and tidal power might well prove to be the answer. The World Energy Council has estimated that around two terawatts (two million megawatts) of power could be generated from the Earth’s oceans – about double the current world electricity production – with a significant percentage of Europe’s wave and tidal power potential located off Scotland’s coasts. And anyone who’s endured a winter ferry trip to Orkney will be all too aware of how abundant the islands’ wave and tidal resources are.

Although Orkney’s economy has traditionally centred on agriculture, islanders have been quick to recognise the potential of renewables. Now wind turbines meet almost all of the islands’ electricity needs, with marine devices beginning to contribute too. Granted, the marine element is small at the moment, but it’s growing as major developers, including Aquamarine Power, Tidal Generation Limited, E.ON and Scottish Power Renewables, continue to scale up the wave and tidal devices trialling at EMEC’s Billia Croo and Fall of Warness test sites.

Vigorously independent, EMEC doesn’t design or operate any devices, but instead provides a wide range of support, research and consultancy services to developers. The centre has been instrumental in creating international standards for marine energy testing, with cooperation a central tenet of its philosophy.

Most recently, EMEC signed a memorandum of understanding with Incheon Metropolitan City in north-western South Korea to provide technical assistance on the design, construction and operation of a tidal energy testing facility in the province. EMEC has similar agreements in place with the Ocean University China, the Ocean Energy Association of Japan, the Pacific Marine Energy Centre in Oregon, USA, and Canada’s Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy.

Kermode believes this knowledge sharing makes sense for a planet urgently seeking a solution to its energy problems, but he also reckons it benefits Scotland’s image globally.

“They recognise we are the experts. We’ve been treated with great courtesy and respect in all these overseas locations and they genuinely value what’s going on in Orkney. They welcome the fact that we come in and say we’re willing to help and would like to build a long-term relationship. I think that’s really helped the reach of Scotland plc into these countries as we’re seen as bringing a quality offering.”

Whilst Kermode hopes this spirit of international cooperation will continue, he stresses the need for Scotland to keep its eye on the renewables ball and not get left behind as other nations accelerate development of their own wave and tidal power schemes.

“We need to be forcing the pace and directing where this is all going,” he says. “At the moment Scotland has got the lead, the right policies and the necessary determination to make it work. What we’ve now got to do is keep pushing on with confidence.

“Principally, we have to have a strong home market for marine renewables and keep all the signals at green,” adds Kermode, who firmly believes Scotland could make its own wave and tidal devices and use its expertise to install them around the world. “The message should be that we want to make this work and will push as hard as we possibly can to make sure it happens here in Scotland. The best way to stay ahead is by being the best.”

The pace of marine energy development in Scotland is undoubtedly quickening, with a palpable buzz around the burgeoning industry in Orkney. Lease agreements for major marine energy developments in the islands and Pentland Firth are now in place, with new multi-millionpound harbour facilities to support the sector being created at Stromness, Kirkwall and Lyness, on the island of Hoy.

Orkney, continually under the renewables spotlight, was also the stage for the Scottish Government’s recent announcement on the final phase of the £10m Saltire Prize, which will see four wave and tidal power developers compete to become the first to generate 100GWh of electricity from the ocean over a two-year period.

“We now have a chance to do as good a job with marine renewables as we did with North Sea oil,” concludes Kermode. “If you go to any oil town in the world, there’ll be somebody from Aberdeen there, doing business, making money and bringing wealth back to Scotland. In the future I believe you’ll go to marine towns, or places on the periphery of nation states, and there’ll be a link back to Orkney. People will know where it is on the map, will know people who’ve been here and they’ll have an affinity with us. What we need to do is to build this web so strongly that people feel part of a great connectedness across the oceans.”

Link: Holyrood Renewables Magazine

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