Engineering opportunities in the marine renewables sector

With exposure to strong Atlantic winds and a bounty of coastal areas, the UK is in an enviable position to develop marine renewables technology. For the government, grasping this opportunity may mean a lucrative slice of what is already a competitive industry. For UK engineers, it could provide a raft of jobs and the chance to shape the future of marine renewables globally.

Aquamarine Power's Oyster wave energy device
Aquamarine Power’s Oyster wave energy device

Recent initiatives have highlighted the government’s commitment in this area. A £20m Marine Energy Array Demonstration Fund was launched this year to progress marine devices from large scale prototypes to bigger formations in the sea. To aid this development, the first UK marine energy park was opened in South West England in January. A second marine energy park launched in July at the Pentland Firth and Orkney Waters in the North of Scotland- the same stretch of water that is home to the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC).

With these and similar initiatives, the UK has placed itself as the world’s leading developer of marine renewables. It is estimated that the country has 25% of Europe’s tidal and 10% of Europe’s wave potential.  As a result, out of the eight full-scale prototype devices installed worldwide, seven are in the UK. According to a Technology Innovations Needs Assessment (TINA) report, if the UK builds on this activity, it could harness 15 per cent of the global marine renewable energy sector by 2050 and secure around £4bn for the economy.

But there are a number of significant challenges that need to be overcome. ‘The Future of Marine Renewables in the UK’ report highlights access to a suitably skilled workforce. The lack of people following careers in engineering, could it said, threaten the successful development of wave and tidal energy. A representative of EMEC claimed: ‘We will have graduates, masters and doctors, but we will not have the skilled artisan workforce to actually do the job.’  For this emerging industry, it believes showcasing innovation will be vital to attracting talent.

The variety of wave energy devices that have been developed show just how innovative the sector can be. So far wave energy systems have included oscillating water columns, overtopping devices, point absorbers, terminators, attenuators and flexible structures.  Meanwhile, tidal devices have converged to a greater extent, with most designs now based around horizontal axis turbines sharing some similarities to wind turbines.  With such a range of technologies, it’s an exciting time to be an engineer in the marine renewables sector, claims Neil Kermode managing director of EMEC.

‘I’ve seen real hard-nosed traditional engineers come from other industries such as a construction,’ he said. ‘When they have a chance to work on marine renewables, they are like kids again, they really love it.’ Coming up with new ideas and testing them out carries far more currency in marine renewables than in many other industries. Kermode added that there is an unrivalled chance to make a real impact to the future of marine energy. ‘To those unsure about whether to join the industry, I would say get off the fence, there is such a fantastic opportunity out there for engineers.’

The Pelamis wave energy device
The Pelamis wave energy device

Kermode admits that finding a way into the sector isn’t easy. ‘It’s still so early that we don’t yet know what it is we want people to do,’ he said. ‘It’s really about keeping your wits about you, read about the subject and see what is going on. Go and talk to some of the companies involved. Is there an easy way in? No there isn’t. You have to find your own way in. Stay interested and attend some conferences.’

Dr Win Rampen, managing director of Edinburgh University spin-out Artemis Intelligent Power, agrees that the marine energy sector has some unique qualities it can offer the engineering workforce.  ‘If you’re a professional embarking on a new career, you don’t necessarily want to have everything laid out…you want a challenge to solve.’ He said. ‘There is a lot to be done and because of that it’s a fascinating and potentially very rewarding endeavour.’

The TINA report suggests that going forward, research and development on tidal energy will need to focus on system integration and evolution of component level capaibilities. For wave, in addition to system integration, new and better concepts are required at the component and device level. The skills of experienced engineers in parallel industries such as maritime and offshore engineering are particularly valuable for this. Driving down costs will be another focus, with the price of marine energy needing to be reduced by 50-75 per cent in order to be competitive with other renewables technologies.

Robert Moore, operations manager of Low Carbon at Energy and Utility Skills, believes the required engineering skills will be wide ranging. ‘We expect a similar requirement for engineers to work on the deployment of wave and tidal devices as we expect for offshore wind,’ he said. ‘There will be a requirement for civil engineers in the installation of the technologies and the upgrade of the transmission network. Barrages and lagoons are immense civil projects in their own rights. Once generating there will be a need for on-going operations and maintenance activities requiring multi-skilled engineers able to work on mechanical, electrical, hydraulic and control systems.’

Harnessing the UK’s wave and tidal potential will not only provide opportunities for inward investment, but will also develop a large export industry.  Marine renewables markets are now beginning to emerge in Canada, USA, Korea and New Zealand. As such, the UK will have to accelerate its development of marine renewables over the coming decade. ‘There is a risk that the UK can lose its way at this critical moment, which would certainly be unforgivable if not close to criminal,’ said Kermode.

But if the UK can grasp this opportunity, the rewards will be huge. The country already has the right geography and a good amount of government support to move forward with development. For those involved in the change, it could provide the renaissance of engineering skills that the country has long been waiting for.

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