Robyn Williams: In all our discussions of energy technologies (you may have seen Four Corners last week) little has been said about wave power. Does it rate? Naomi Fowler reports from Scotland.
Naomi Fowler: What you can hear is the huge bright-orange Pelamis or sea snake wave energy capture device being towed out to sea. It looks like four carriages of a locomotive train without the windows, floating on the sea surface. This is what the excitement’s all about, this is the new technology that will be providing electricity for Scottish homes on the world’s largest commercial wave farm in Orkney.
Max Carcas: In the past many people had approached it from an academic perspective of trying to design something which mathematically might capture 100% of the energy in a metre width of wave, but that’s actually the wrong place to start.
Naomi Fowler: Max Carcas of Ocean Power Delivery explains how their Pelamis wave machine works.
Max Carcas: The most important thing for a wave energy converter is to be survivable with the conditions that are out there at sea. You can have average wave conditions being there 99% of the time, but 1% of the year you get extreme waves, storm waves. As a concept, really what you want to be able to do is capture the average energy that’s there most of the time whilst being almost invisible to the very large forces that are contained in storm waves, and that’s really the reason our machine looks the way it does. It presents a minimal cross-sectional area pointing into the waves, which gives it excellent load-shedding capability in those extreme waves whilst being very closely coupled to the average energy, the buoyancy versus weight forces that are there for most of the year.
What happens is the machine is moored at its nose and it self-references, it will automatically point into the predominant swell. What happens is the waves travel down the length of this machine, so if you can imagine each of these train carriages moving both up and down and side to side, that occurs around hinged joints, and that movement is resisted by hydraulic rams, which you can think of a little bit like big bicycle pumps which pump high-pressure hydraulic fluid through hydraulic motors which turn generators. That’s essentially how the machine works.
Naomi Fowler: Estimates on the untapped potential of wave power are pretty exciting. Each metre of Scottish coastline is believed to have enough wave energy reaching it to power 100 homes. If less than 0.1% of the total energy contained within the world’s oceans and seas was harnessed, it could supply the planet’s entire energy needs, exceeding the world’s demand for electrical power by a factor of five. Not only that, the World Energy Council reckons that globally wave energy is a 730 billion market. It ticks all the boxes in terms of energy security, price stability, thousands of jobs, and of course it’s key in tackling climate change.
Jason Ormiston: If you wanted to invest in renewables in Scotland, Scotland appears to be getting its act together and perhaps would be a good place to do business.
Naomi Fowler: Jason Ormiston of the Scottish Renewables Forum.
Jason Ormiston: On the flipside there are barriers to the development of that potential. There needs to be investment in the planning systems so that they work more efficiently, there needs to be greater consistency in decision making, there need to be determinations quicker. If we really want to tap the potential, we need to be giving a long-term market signal, and that comes through the planning system. If they don’t get that right then the renewables project in Scotland will stall.
Reporter: To a remote moor they came, small in number but determined in their opposition. These protesters want a rethink on plans to route electricity pylons through this remote hillside.
Protester 1: It’s simply desecration as far as we’re concerned. And it smacks of the usual things; it’s the cheapest and easiest way to do it, what does it matter about…
Protester 2: I might have to look to moving and this is just almost too much to bear.
Protester 3: We’re dreading it. We’ve been fearing this for a few years now. It’s going to be horrendous…
Naomi Fowler: Problem is, wild and windy places are often remote areas of outstanding natural beauty. Pylons need to be built or existing routes enlarged to carry the electricity produced by these renewable energy projects hundreds of miles to the towns and cities that can use it. There are protests, legal battles and public enquires that can take years. Member of the Scottish parliament Christine May believes now is the time for politicians to get tough.
Christine May: If we are to be really serious about developing our capacity for marine energy then we have to look at strengthening the grid, and that may mean some unpleasant decisions for people living in some of the more remote areas. I do think it’s essential for us as politicians to have the courage of our convictions in the way that the post-war expansion of the electricity grid was dealt with by government identifying it as a national necessity and taking the powers to make sure that that was dealt with and provided, because it is essential in order to meet our environmental targets.
Naomi Fowler: Scotland hasn’t just thrown cash at marine power projects, it’s also legislated. This month the Marine Supply Obligation will force energy companies to provide a percentage of their electricity from wave or tidal power. Scottish members of parliament really are keen to keep this youthful wave power industry in Scotland and not to miss the boat again as many feel they did with wind power, now well established in other European countries that some think were more farsighted. Max Carcas again, of Ocean Power Delivery.
Max Carcas: Where we are is kind of where wind was 25, 30 years ago. The global market for wind turbines is worth about 15 billion per annum and employs many tens of thousands of people in the manufacture of wind turbines. Certain countries took the lead to establish markets for these technologies, countries such as Denmark, Germany and Spain, and indeed those are the countries that are really reaping the rewards today in terms of jobs, exports and industry. The global potential for wave energy, estimated by the World Energy Council, is an electricity generation market of about 2,000 terawatt hours per annum. To put that in relevant terms it’s broadly equivalent to the existing nuclear or hydro electricity markets. If that displaces conventional generation that’s potentially 1.5 to 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum, which dwarfs many, many times over our individual country’s renewables targets. So it’s a big environmental prize in moving forward on this as well.
Naomi Fowler: Moving forward Scotland certainly is, and what happens here in terms of development could help address not just the UK’s carbon emissions but the world’s, if they can reconcile local rights and concerns with national needs. This is Naomi Fowler in Edinburgh, Scotland for The Science Show.