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An offshore wind farm in Scotland Opinion

A European future for Scotland’s wave and tidal sector

Ronnie Quinn

Ronnie Quinn

This week in Brussels (8-9 November) experts will gather for the Ocean Energy Europe Conference. It marks what some have described as the ‘take off year’, with wave and tidal energy even being tipped as ‘the next big thing in European power production’.

These claims may seem overblown in Scotland, where the failure in recent years of Pelamis and Aquamarine, two of the sector’s most innovative companies, felt like a form of industrial bereavement. There is no doubt that developments have progressed more slowly than originally expected. Yet recent tidal projects such as Meygen in the Pentland Firth and the smaller Nova project in Shetland have given rise to renewed optimism.

Importantly, this hard won experience has made Scotland the clear leader in terms of innovation and expertise across Europe. With the European Maritime Energy Centre (EMEC) based in Orkney and a range of other cutting edge engineering companies and developers, Scotland now has an opportunity to reap the commercial benefits of its early involvement in the industry across Europe.

Scotland was quick to recognise the considerable potential in wave and tidal energy, and our early involvement created an exceptional skills base and technical knowhow. Getting to this point has required conviction and a determination to keep pushing through. All the while, our knowledge has been building and with setback has come experience.

The potential remains with up to 25% of Europe’s tidal and 10% of its wave resource off Scotland’s coast. But there are also real challenges including a complex energy market, subsidy arrangements and grid access. These issues interlock. In solving one there also needs to be movement in the other. Grid connections to transport marine energy will only be built when there is confidence in the consistent provision of power. Investors need to be sure of the technology before investing in commercial scale projects. And we need to further streamline the consenting process to ease the way and secure the confidence of developers.

Our experience in addressing these challenges helps to ensure Scotland’s place as the European hub for research, development and investment and, ultimately, activation.

Discussing the issue

For example, Atlantis Resources’ MeyGen tidal stream project in the Pentland Firth offers an important model of how marine energy can progress. It has the largest energised grid connection of any array and has helped create investor confidence in the technology and in the viability of commercial scale projects. The installation in Orkney last month of the world’s most powerful tidal turbine, a 2MW device developed and manufactured by Scottish engineering company Scotrenewables, was a further indication of the growing confidence of the sector.

There is potential for Scottish companies to use this expertise across Europe where the industry body Ocean Energy Europe estimates that 100GW of installed capacity will be developed by 2050, meeting 10% of Europe’s power requirements. Already we have seen projects being developed from Gothenburg to the Azores.

However, this ambition still needs to be tempered with some caution. The experience of offshore wind to date offers shows that the road ahead may be long. With tidal power we will need to allow significant timescales to progress from smaller demonstration projects to commercial scale arrays – and from there to the truly massive projects that we are now seeing with offshore wind. And we need to accept that wave technology is still developing and that there is currently no single settled model that could form the basis for commercial scale development.

It seems ironic that even after years of supporting and championing offshore renewables, we still perceive many of these projects as fledgling ventures. This does not properly account for the level of expertise and determined business acumen that has brought these ventures to a point where Scotland can rightfully assert itself as a European leader in this industry.

For our own part we have been stalwart in working alongside partners such as the Scottish Government in supporting ocean energy. We manage the seabed and have invested millions of to encourage the testing of wave and tidal devices and reduce potential investor risk.

Yet the future success of the Scotland’s wave and tidal sector, be it in engineering, development or academia, lies not just on our own shores but in the commercial opportunities offered by extending our expertise across Europe. In this sense, ocean energy offers an opportunity for Scotland to lead in Europe.