Colin Donald, the Sunday Herald‘s Business Editor has something of a stunner:
German utility firm RWE npower renewables has withdrawn its backing for the world’s largest “wave farm”, throwing the future of the 4MW facility in doubt, the Sunday Herald can reveal.
RWE npower renewables’s decision to abandon the project at Siadar Bay off the north coast of Isle of Lewis leaves Inverness firm Wavegen, developers of the world’s first commercial-scale wave energy device the Limpet, seeking a new developer or owner of the projected £30 million Hebridean scheme.
A Wavegen statement confirmed that RWE would “not proceed” with Siadar, adding “we are in discussion with a number of parties in order to seek an owner and investor in the plant … work on the civil engineering solutions is ongoing”.
The Siadar project was the first of its type to be approved in 2009 and was originally scheduled to open this year. The project has been allocated a conditional £6m grant from the Scottish Government.
While npower’s withdrawal is understood to be linked to an “internal review” by its heavily-indebted parent company based in Essen, senior marine energy sources see the setback as symptomatic of wider funding, commercialisation and grid-connection problems in the emerging marine power sector, where Scotland has strong claims to lead the world.
Recent setbacks include Edinburgh-based company Pelamis Wave Power’s decision in May to cut around 20 jobs at its Leith manufacturing plant, blaming the “shift … from the completion of a manufacturing focus to an operational phase”. In April the Crown Estate reopened tendering for a wind and tidal development zone in the Pentland Firth when £300m plans by Singapore’s Atlantis Resources foundered after Norway’s Statkraft pulled out of the joint venture to deploy deep-water tidal turbines.
The whole thing smells fishy
Whatever one’s views of the SNP administration, the intention to go “green”, to produce and sell on energy from Scotland’s natural resources (water and wind) is commendable — and adventurous.
A cynic must note how time and again projects suddenly run into problems which necessitate bigger and bigger bribes to commercial energy firms to progress them. Notice the prime reason given there by Donald: an “internal review” by its heavily-indebted parent company based in Essen. Later in the same story Donald has this:
Niall Stuart, chief executive of trade group Scottish Renewables, said: “The decision on the Siadar project looks more like a refocusing of operations by RWE than a reflection on the merits or demerits of the project. In terms of investment, in the last 10 months the French firm Alston has invested several million in AWS, ABB have invested heavily in Aquamarine, and Pelamis have raised several million. The sector continues to attract serious money.
“Nowhere else in the world has anything like Scotland’s ambition to deliver 1600MW by 2020. That’s not politicians’ rhetoric that is claiming that, it’s the likes of Scottish Power, Scottish and Southern Energy and EOn, who have brought forward proposals that amount to more [capacity] than the rest of the world combined. If you speak to people involved in renewable energy around the world they clearly see Scotland as the front-runner.”
That translates into a definition of economic imperialism: when the commercial going gets rough, it’s the outlying branches that get cut off first. Unless, of course, the local (colonial) administration further sweetens the deal.
A second problem is lack of real co-ordination. It is fair to say that no one method of harnessing wave power has become the standard; but that an almost infinite number of prototypes are being evolved. That is also because no one system is the sole answer. All work, to some extent. All may have flaws. If ever there was need for some central direction and control this is it.
A local dimension:
There is, in passing, an experimental 1MW station in the County Down (see right), exploiting the 3½ metre + tidal range of Strangford Lough.
The Victorians would have cracked it by public investment: a solution (or, as in this case, a range of solutions) would be implemented and working within a decade or so. Now, in these enlightened after-days, we leave it to commercial operations to play their games, and keep asking for the odd multi-million subsidy here and there. The Victorian system may have landed much of the world with the 1435mm gauge railway track, when better options were available, but it created in short order a system that worked and persisted.
What is even odder is that the technology of the “Limpet” scheme is proven and successful. Siadar on the Isle of Islay has clocked up 50,000 operating hours. The newer, larger 300kW facility at Mutriku, in the Spanish Basque country, has one demonstration turbine which, over three years, has achieved 95% annual reliability.
Repeat: the technology works. It’s just the economic system that’s broken.
New readers start here:
Strathclyde University has a web-page cogently explaining the technologies and technical problems of wave-power. Sure enough, the point is well made:
At present, the main stumbling block to deployment of wave energy devices is funding. The Government has a very important role to play if this industry is to be given the chance to fulfil its potential. The capital costs are the problem, as it is hard to get companies to invest in technologies that have not yet been completely proved. Similar to other forms of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, the fuel is free for the complete lifetime of the scheme.
Laissez-faire is simply not going to deliver.