Let’s go with the flow

There are plenty of good reasons to visit the beautiful northern coast of Scotland. The scenery is spectacular, the welcome is friendly and the rush hour an unknown concept.


There are plenty of good reasons to visit the beautiful northern coast of Scotland. The scenery is spectacular, the welcome is friendly and the rush hour an unknown concept.

If you need another incentive, venture to Orkney and you will see at first hand what could be — and a growing body of opinion believes should be — a key component of the UK’s future energy mix (see feature).

Where the Atlantic meets the North Sea, source of the nation’s oil for the last few decades, engineers are working on the wave and tidal energy devices that could meet a significant chunk of our future power requirements.

If you are an island in the Atlantic Ocean, waves and tides tend to be in plentiful supply and the UK is blessed with some of the most powerful in the world. How to effectively harness this vast potential is the question that the European Marine Energy Centre hopes to answer in the harsh environment off Orkney’s coast.

The offshore nature of wave and tidal installations is another factor that could make this particular energy source an attractive option for the UK.

The oil and gas industries of the North Sea have created a formidable skills base in the tough business of working offshore. We know this because UK engineers are in demand for offshore projects around the world and it would be most desirable to offer them a new outlet for their talents closer to home. For all the considerable promise of wave and tidal energy, however, there are considerable hurdles ahead of the fledgling technology.

As the managing director of EMEC tells The Engineer, wave and tidal is at the same stage of development as wind energy was 20 years ago.

The problem for marine energy’s supporters is that two decades ago, renewable energy was still way off the mainstream radar and seen by many as the preserve of hippies and cranks.

Wind, solar and other renewables have spent the intervening period refining their technologies, increasing efficiency and making themselves more cost-effective. Marine energy, by contrast, is a relatively slow developer.

Lo and behold, by 2007 the hippies and cranks turned out to be on to something, and renewable energy is rarely out of the headlines.

Big decisions will have to be made soon regarding the UK’s future energy mix, the role of renewables within it and what form that renewable element will take.

Wave and tidal should be given the chance to show whether it is up to the job — and soon. As EMEC says, that is too big a burden to be left to small companies.

Backing from government — not in the form of supportive words but hard cash — and a greater commitment from major engineering and technology groups would give wave and tidal energy the boost it needs.

Andrew Lee, editor