A second chance to rule the waves?

Britain started to enter the age of marine power this week. The Crown Estate, which owns the seabed around the British Isles, announced that it is to lease sites for commercial wave and tidal power sites around the Scottish coast and the Orkneys; a series of different technologies will generate a total of 1.2GW from the rough and powerful seas that lash the coasts.

That’s a major installation. Individual farms will generate 50-200MW of power; comparable with the largest current wind farms. Together, the plants will produce enough electricity to supply three-quarters of a million homes.

We’ve been following marine power with interest at The Engineer with interest. The UK, by quirks of geography, possesses some of the most promising reserves in the world, concentrated into a small area: the North Sea acts as a giant tidal pool, collecting and releasing enormous volumes of water from the Atlantic Ocean twice a day through narrow channels between the mainland and the shore. And as it happens, a very large proportion of that area is in Scotland.

This represents a major opportunity for British engineering. With the offshore know-how already in the right area because of North Sea oil and gas exploration, and the resources close to hand, the UK has a real chance of not only securing a real contribution from this promising (and, in the case of tides, utterly predictable) source of renewable power, but also of dominating the technological sector. Both are chances we absolutely must not blow.

The Institution of Civil Engineers said in a report today that a marine energy sector could create 40,000 jobs in the UK, and could provide up to half of the nation’s electricity requirements. It seems like it’s just there for the picking. It isn’t.

Exploiting marine resources is going to be difficult. The technology is about ten years behind wind power. The devices have to be moored securely in areas which are by their very nature difficult to access; once there, they have to be maintained. The power has to be brought ashore and integrated with the National Grid. Investment is going to be crucial; and that means that the government is going to have to both ensure that the climate for private sector investors is right, and will have to provide money as well.

In these days of politicians talking about tough choices, while often displaying a lamentable lack of understanding of technological issues and engineering in general, any large investment is going to come under scrutiny. We know from past experience with wind power that the private sector cannot be relied upon to maintain the R&D necessary to launch and support the type of new technology needed for marine power. If the UK isn’t to squander this resource and the potential it represents, politicians need sound advice. And they need to listen to it.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor