Hybrids — the face of the future

In the ongoing debate over the UK’s energy future there are many arguments.

Here’s one: renewable energy is the UK’s only hope for a secure energy supply in the face of dwindling fossil fuel reserves.

Here’s another: there are loads of fossil fuels left around the UK and the development of marginal recovery techniques mean that we’ll have no problem meeting much of our demand for the foreseeable future.

Take your pick.

Or perhaps you’d prefer to consider an energy future where things are not so black and white, where fossil fuels and renewables walk hand in hand: each propping up the other in their hour of need.

Eclipse Energy’s Ormonde project is a fascinating idea. Scheduled to begin operation in 2009, this huge offshore facility in the East Irish Sea will use wind turbines to generate electricity when the wind is blowing and fuel from the gas fields that lie beneath when it isn’t.

It is hybrid power on a grand scale, a symbiotic relationship between the past and the future, and it kills two birds with one stone.

The concept promises to make it economical to set up offshore drilling operations where the resources are dwindling, while finding a neat way around arguably the biggest obstacle to wind power: its intermittency.

However, the gas fields beneath Ormonde are thought to hold a supply that will last for six years and, while the new plant will prolong this, it is still going to run out sooner rather than later.

So what do we do then? Well, the gas platform could be towed elsewhere to tap into the resources of another marginal gas field.

But more intriguingly, we could see the dawn of hybrid wind/ hydrogen platforms. According to one group of engineers the gas turbines could be replaced with electrolysers which, powered by wind turbines, would split seawater into hydrogen and oxygen, store the hydrogen and use it to generate electricity when the wind is not blowing.

But let’s not get carried away. The latter project is in its infancy and the power companies are still going to take some convincing over the Ormonde scheme, not least because, with the intermittency issues swept aside, it will be asking them to pay full whack for something that they used to get a discount for: wind energy.

Nevertheless those involved are convinced that it is the way forward, and this is not blind optimism but a confidence borne out of many years of experience in the offshore oil and gas industry.

Eclipse is, they stress, not some fly-by-night renewables firm, but an energy company with real experience of the engineering rigours and demands of the marine environment.

And while many in the offshore renewables industry would dispute the implication that they lack this expertise, this meeting of two industries seems like a sensible way forward both for the traditional energy sector and for the fledgling offshore renewables industry.

Jon Excell, features editor