Prototype power

Successful marine energy prototype testing is essential if the UK is to continue leading the world, says technology consultant Frazer-Nash

The oceans’ waves and tides are becoming an increasingly popular green energy source, and there are many new ideas for devices to harness their power.

Yet none of these devices will see commercial success without a successful working prototype — the key that will open the door to government backing from the £42m Marine Renewables Deployment Fund, further private capital and eventual commercialisation.

For example, Scottish company Pelamis Wave Power’s successful 2004 test of its technology that uses the motion of ocean surface waves to create electricity paved the way for the world’s first commercial wave farm. That farm, at Portugal’s Aguçadora Wave Park, was successfully opened in September.

Dublin-based OpenHydro, the first company to deploy a tidal energy prototype at the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in the Orkney Islands in 2006, has also seen the benefits of a successful prototype. The company is now simultaneously developing three commercial projects in Canada, France and the Channel Islands.

While this progress from prototypes towards commercial devices is encouraging, there are many other devices that never make that end stage because expectations from investors are too high.

Prototyping is often misunderstood, particularly by those who are not intimately involved in a testing programme. Many think that repeated failures at an early stage mean the prototype will never turn into a viable production device. However, the end goal of a prototype is not a production device — it is a way to manage risk when developing new technology.

A prototype allows the developer to gather vital information on real-life performance that can be used to inform the design of the final production device. With limited experience of how such devices respond in the ocean environment and the complex interactions between wave, tide and wind, prototyping ultimately buys greater confidence than computer modelling alone.

The other advantage is that a developer gains further insight into the engineering practicalities of installing its device in the actual environment in which it will operate. This is invaluable in the marine environment, where the cost of maintenance and recovery operations form a significant proportion of the cost of a prototype testing programme.

So what would constitute success for a marine energy prototype?

The predominant requirement is to gain the information to confidently design a commercial machine. The prototype provides information to mitigate risks of performance, survivability, reliability, installation and recovery.

However, it does not necessarily need to demonstrate high-energy yield, or indeed survive all of the environmental conditions to which a production device will be subjected, such as storms, if these are not the issues being assessed.

The key is to understand where the prototype sits in the development process and what questions it can answer that computer modelling, scale model testing and final design of the commercial model cannot.

The Carbon Trust anticipates that an increasing number of energy devices could reach commercialisation and widespread market adoption over the next five to 10 years. To support this, we at Frazer-Nash expect the number of marine energy prototypes deployed to increase noticeably over the next few years. Many of these will be tested at EMEC, giving the UK the opportunity to lead the technical development of the industry.

However, the success of prototype testing programmes will be judged against the expectations that are set. Confusing the end goal of a production device with the requirements of a prototype complicates the development process, and can lead to loss of confidence by investors, government and the public.

The marine energy industry needs to build confidence to allow its stakeholders to make bold decisions to invest in the technology, implement grid upgrades and simplify the planning process. These decisions need to be made in order for the UK to maintain its position as the global leader in this industry.

This article was written by Jonathan Armstrong and Ian Watson of systems and engineering technology provider Frazer-Nash, which works with marine energy device developers