From Powerful Tidal Turbines to Huge Wave Machines, Scotland Is Becoming a Hub for Marine Energy

  • Marine energy's current footprint is tiny compared to other renewable technologies such as solar and wind.  
  • Driving costs down is seen as being key if the sector is to flourish in the years ahead.

LONDON – In mid-May, a prototype wave energy converter weighing 38-metric tons arrived in Orkney, an archipelago located in waters north of mainland Scotland.

Later this summer the bright yellow, 20 meter long piece of kit — dubbed Blue X — will be transported to one of the European Marine Energy Centre's test sites, where it will undergo initial sea trials.

Developed by a firm called Mocean Energy, the Blue X will be the latest piece of technology to be put through its paces at Orkney-based EMEC.

Many other companies have undertaken testing at the site over the years. They include Scotland's Orbital Marine Power, which is working on what it describes as the world's most powerful tidal turbine, Spain-based tidal power firm Magallanes Renovables and ScottishPower Renewables, part of the Iberdrola Group.

There are many reasons why businesses come to Orkney — but two in particular are key: strong waves and tides.

"Those kind of natural resources are … second to none," Matthew Finn, EMEC's commercial director, told CNBC in a phone interview.

"What's really unique about Orkney is you've got these high energy bits next to quite sheltered harbors and inlets," he went on to add.

"And right in the middle of Orkney is Scapa Flow, which is one of the largest sheltered anchorages in Europe, if not the world, so you can go from these … high energy resources to quite benign, protected environments."

This is important when it comes to the research and development phase of projects, Finn noted: "If you need to do maintenance cycles or you need to do something with your device, it's quite quick to get from the ports and harbors to the test sites and back, so I think that's a massive natural advantage."  

Putting marine energy on the map

Since its inception in 2003, EMEC has become a major hub for the development of wave and tidal power, helping to put the U.K. at the heart of the planet's emerging marine energy sector.

"EMEC was created as a bit of a flagship organization, with the idea that if you could put a lot of investment into one facility it would reduce the time, the cost and the risk for these technologies to come to market," Finn explained.

£36 million ($50.98 million) has been invested in EMEC so far. Financial backers include the Scottish government, U.K. government, European Union, Orkney Islands Council, The Carbon Trust and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.  

As well as miles of coastline and abundant natural resources, facilities such as EMEC also draw upon the U.K.'s long history of marine-based industries and leading academic institutions.  

"There's lots of legacies from other sectors, oil and gas being one but (also) aquaculture; lots of engineering disciplines that are really strong," Finn explained, "and the universities kind of grab a hold of these sort of things and pump a lot of innovation and ideas and people into it."

The latter point was illustrated earlier this year when it was announced that some £7.5 million of public funding would be used to support the development of eight wave energy projects led by U.K. universities.

The importance of testing  

Cameron McNatt is Mocean Energy's managing director. Speaking to CNBC, he outlined how his company — which has offices in Scotland and whose manufacturing and testing program has been backed by Wave Energy Scotland to the tune of £3.3 million — would be using EMEC to test the giant Blue X wave energy converter over the coming weeks and months.

First, what he described as "shakedown testing" would take place in the sheltered waters of Scapa Flow.

"Then it will be moved to the larger, open Atlantic site, Billia Croo, where it'll really see some pretty serious waves and generate more power," he added. "We'll test … power production, reliability, survivability."

A grid connected facility, Billia Croo is described by EMEC as having "one of the highest wave energy potentials in Europe."

According to the organization, its average significant wave height ranges between 2 and 3 meters, with the highest wave on EMEC's records coming in at 18 meters. 

In terms of how Mocean Energy's technology could be deployed in real-world scenarios, McNatt said it was focused on providing power to operations connected to the oil and gas sector.

"While it's maybe a bit funny to be applying renewables within oil and gas there's a real demand," he said. "Operators are looking to reduce their carbon footprint and to transition into … cleaner energy."

"We see this as a stepping stone and a pathway towards developing … larger-scale technologies," he added. 

While Orkney is now well established as a major hub for the testing of wave and tidal systems, the U.K.'s marine energy sector is also looking to play a greater international role.

Speaking to CNBC, Robert Norris, head of communications at trade association RenewableUK, sought to hammer home this point.

"As an island nation we have the best marine energy resource in Europe," he said via email.

"We're already selling our marine energy technology around the world," he added, citing the example of Scotland-headquartered Nova Innovation exporting tidal turbines to Canada.

Challenges ahead

There may be excitement in some quarters regarding the potential of marine energy, but its current footprint is tiny compared to other renewable technologies such as solar and wind.  

Recent figures from Ocean Energy Europe show that only 260 kilowatts of tidal stream capacity was added in Europe last year, while just 200 kW of wave energy was installed.

In comparison, 2020 saw 14.7 gigawatts of wind energy capacity installed in Europe, according to industry body WindEurope.

Despite this, tidal and wave power could have a significant role to play in the years ahead as countries attempt to decarbonize their energy mix and hit ambitious emissions reduction targets.

The European Commission, for example, wants the capacity of ocean energy technologies to hit 100 megawatts by 2025 and roughly 1 gigawatt by 2030.

Back across the Channel, discussions about marine energy's role in the U.K. continue, with driving costs down seen as being key if the sector is to flourish. In a report released earlier this month, RenewableUK called on the government to also establish a target of 1 gigawatt of marine energy.

The London-based organization added: "Much like with floating wind, a 1 GW target for marine energy, set in the 2030s, would not just signal a confidence in marine energy to the world, but would also demonstrate the U.K.'s commitment to making these technologies a cost-competitive solution for others to adopt."

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