Bringing wave and tidal power to market

A key challenge addressed by the review is how to transform the embryonic wave and tidal stream sector into a mature industry that can contribute significantly towards UK carbon targets and also cash in on world markets.

The UK has got off to a promising start. Wavegen has been operating the world's first grid-connected shoreline wave generator since 2000. In April, rival developer Ocean Power Delivery will tow a full-scale prototype of its 750kW Pelamis wave generator to the new Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, where it will be put through its paces in a demanding marine environment.

Meanwhile, tidal stream developers Marine Current Turbines and the Engineering Business have been testing prototypes off Devon and the Shetlands since last year.

To ease the transition from such prototypes to pre-commercial development the review advocates a "plug and play" facility on a larger scale than the Orkney centre. This could involve two grid-connected "farms" of perhaps 15-20 machines, with a combined capacity of about 30MW.

South West England is a likely location. In February, the Regional Development Agency committed nearly £500,000 for a feasibility study of a "wave hub", which could be built by 2006 (ENDS Report 346, pp 25-27 ).

However, the review says that a "gap in Government funding" needs to be plugged if the technologies are to make the leap to wider pre-commercial development.

The Renewable Power Association is impressed with the Government's declared commitment, but is less convinced by the details. "Our member companies are pioneering a whole new industry with exciting developments every month," said chief executive Philip Woolfe. "Meanwhile Government seems to think it can wait until the 2020s before helping the market to emerge. That is the approach that lost us the wind power industry."

Speaking at an RPA conference in March, Tony Trapp of the Engineering Business said he was disappointed that the review foresees little output from marine technologies even by 2020 (see figure in main article ). The industry won't be able to survive if it has to endure a 20-year development programme, he said.

Senior DTI official Claire Dunkin argued that it is up to the industry to prove the projection wrong. "I would really like to come back in a year and laugh...about how modest we were about our aspirations on wave and tidal."

According to the review, prototype demonstrations will take around two years followed by six years of pre-commercial deployment - so commercial deployment would not begin until 2012. This is in line with the energy White Paper's expectation, but much slower than the bullish aspirations of developers who hope to install hundreds of MW this decade (ENDS Report 332, pp 28-31 ).

Ken Hulls of Wavegen is concerned that the industry might stall before it has had the chance to get going. Several developers could begin construction of pre-commercial models immediately if transitional funding were available, he said.

To date the Government has relied on capital grants to boost technologies that are not viable under the renewables obligation alone. Indeed, the review concludes that mechanisms such as feed-in tariffs or an "enhanced" renewables obligation would not be compatible with the current framework.

Tony Trapp from the Engineering Business told the conference that subsidies of around £150 million are needed in the next few years - much more than the £15 million of capital grants issued since 1999.

Claire Dunkin confirmed that funds are limited. "We've got millions, not tens of millions", she said, stressing that private investment must complement any Government support.

Mr Hulls of Wavegen warns that the industry will not get off the ground unless transitional funding includes "a significant measure" of revenue support in addition to capital grants. This would minimise the risk of high operation and maintenance costs for early generations of wave devices, he argues.

Several wave and tidal developers have asked the DTI for enhanced revenue support and the RPA is fleshing out proposals for a fixed price contract for immature wave and tidal stream technologies. However, the Government has rejected an amendment to the Energy Bill that would have enabled this.

In February, Energy Minister Stephen Timms confirmed that demonstration wave and tidal projects could proceed with only an informal environmental assessment, and that a full strategic environmental assessment will not be needed before commercial development. Regional renewables group Regen SW had been concerned that the proposed wave hub could be delayed until a formal strategic environmental assessment is completed in 2007.