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An Update on Marine Renewable Energy in Britain

With first-class research centers, a host of competing devices and a strong pipeline of pre-commercial systems, the UK is a world leader in renewable wave and tidal energy. Yet despite its strong position it has been slow to put in place the support needed to grow this industry to mass-market size, leading many to fear it could lose out in the race to commercialize this technology. Thankfully for the all, however, in 2009 several events occurred that improved support for marine renewables at all stages of development.

One of the biggest obstacles faced by marine energy developers is the cost and availability of grid connection, especially for early-stage devices. 

To address this obstacle, in 2009 the UK government agreed to provide £8 million (US $12.8 million) in funding for the European Marine Energy Research Centre (EMEC) in Orkney, to allow it to develop four new test plots (two tidal, two wave). “We’re seeing a scaling up in the technologies as they move from the prototype stage into the commercial market place. Our new facilities will support this process — by offering developers a choice when they make the move from the test tank to at-sea trials of their machines,” said Neil Kermode, EMEC Managing Director.

Also in 2009, construction began on the WaveHub — an undersea socket off the coast of South West England. Supported by the UK, EU and local government, the WaveHub should be completed in early 2010 and will allow for the connection of small wave and tidal power arrays with capacities of up to 5-MW each. Four berths are now available, with room to expand up to ten. If fully subscribed, the WaveHub could test as many as ten marine renewable energy devices with total generating capacities of 50 MW.

Three companies, Fred Olsen, Ocean Power Technology and Orecon have already secured leases (although Orecon recently encountered financial difficulties and its involvement may be in doubt). 

“We want South West England to be a world leader in the development of marine renewables, an industry which could be worth £2 billion a year to the UK by 2050,” said Guy Lavender, WaveHub’s General Manager in a recent release.

Long-term Planning

Looking ahead, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), in conjunction with the electricity regulator Ofgem, has developed a new Offshore Transmission Regime that will go live in June 2010. This will see grid connections for large-scale offshore schemes put out to tender, meaning that the capital costs will be borne by an offshore transmission owner, rather than by the renewables developer.

While this scheme is being developed to assist offshore wind, in the long term it should help to provide the infrastructure and security for large-scale marine renewables.

The recently passed Marine and Coastal Access Bill, and its equivalent in Scotland, should also help to simplify the planning process for marine renewable energy. The first major outcome of this was the identification of the Pentland Firth (in the far North of Scotland) as a priority site for developing wave and tidal power. It also set up a new body called Marine Scotland that could act as a one-stop-shop for renewable energy developers in Scotland.

Speaking at the time, Martin McAdam, Chief Executive of Aquamarine Power said: “The establishment of Marine Scotland and the new planning and licensing regimes promise to relieve developers like ourselves of the huge administrative burden of securing sites to install and test our devices.”

Similar assessments are now underway to identify priority sites in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Is There Enough Capital?

Yet even with improved access and grid planning, marine renewables still need support for research and development and also to overcome the high capital costs of early installations.

In 2004 the £42 million ($67.2 million) Marine Renewables Development Fund was established to provide grants to early stage devices. So far this scheme has been a failure as in order to qualify, a device had to show three months of continuous operation. Not one project has been successful in accessing this money.

“The MRDF is just £42 million sitting in a pot that no one can access,” said one developer in a recent British Wind Energy Association report.

To make more capital available for early-stage projects, in 2009 the UK government set up the £22 million Marine Renewables Proving Fund, a separate resource that, it is hoped, will allow developers to reach the stage where they can have a successful three month trial.

Aside from additional grants, 2009 also saw a change to the Renewable Obligation Certificate scheme (ROCs) — the UK’s main method of encouraging the development of large-scale renewables — with a decision that offshore renewables would each receive 2 ROCs for each MWh of electricity produced.  The UK ROC scheme is similar to the U.S. RPS scheme in that it requires utilities to receive a certain amount of electricity from renewables.  By doubling the ROCs for each MWh of offshore wind electricity produced, the government effectively doubles the value of offshore wind.

While this may be enough for offshore wind, it is unlikely to spur much development of wave and tidal. The BWEA has estimated that a support level of 5 ROCs per MWh will be necessary to support marine renewables in the short term.

Scotland Leads the Pack

In response to calls from the industry, the government of Scotland has announced plans to increase the level of support for projects in Scotland to 3 ROCs for tidal energy and 5 ROCs for wave energy, meaning that the majority of projects are likely to be developed in Scotland. 

“Scotland has the potential to be a powerhouse of marine energy.  We have a vast resource; we have vital engineering and manufacturing skills; as a nation, we have the necessary drive and determination to lead this brand new industry,” said Martin McAdam in a recent statement.

The UK, and particularly Scotland, is in a strong position to lead in the commercialization of marine renewables, with all the benefits that would bring. Competition will be fierce, however, with many other countries also investing heavily and offering simplified feed-in systems. It remains to be seen if UK government’s new initiatives will be enough to secure the lead in the marine renewables race. 

Alasdair Cameron is a UK-based writer and campaigner on environmental issues, and is a former Assistant Editor of Renewable Energy World magazine. You can read his blog at www.themushypea.blogspot.com

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