Scottish Technology in a Changing Energy Market
The success story of Scottish wind power is gaining more and more attention. Recently (15th July 2019), ‘Weather Energy' (a renewable energy website) calculated that wind turbines in Scotland produced enough power to supply 4.47 million homes - enough to supply Scotland and parts of Northern England with electricity. WWF went so far to describe this as a signal of the 'wind energy revolution'.
With Scottish wind power clearly on the rise as a mainstream source of clean power, how are we harnessing the other natural advantage Scotland has, coastal areas? Off the North Coast of Scotland Orkney, an archipelago of just 22,000 inhabitants, has been working on just that for the past sixteen years.
A common criticism of renewable energy is inconsistency. Critics claim that until the battery technology is here renewable technology is an impractical, unsuitable source of energy. Because after all, we cannot control when the wind blows or sun shines. We can, however, predict when the tides will flow with a great deal of accuracy well into the future. Tidal energy’s predictability is not the only source of appeal for the burgeoning industry. The density of water (roughly 1000 times denser than air) means we can capture equivalent amounts of energy of that from air with much smaller devices; an important economic and practical advantage.
For these sixteen years Orkney has served as the global testing grounds for breakthrough tidal and wave energy technologies largely due to the European Marine Energy Centre, or EMEC as it’s more commonly known. Their vision they state is to help build “A globally successful marine energy industry as part of a clean energy system”. Grand ambitions. To facilitate the growth of clean energy alternatives such as wave and tidal power EMEC has established itself as the first and only test centre for tidal/wave renewable energy devices in the world providing a range of testing facilities throughout Orkney (see below (Source: EMEC)).
The geographical make-up of Orkney is ideal. Initial sea-trials in sheltered bays progress to full-scale trials in some of the strongest tides in Europe. At EMEC’s full-scale testing site the flood and ebb tides are funneled through Orkney’s northern islands reaching speeds of up to 7.8 knots or 4 metres per second.
The newly installed Magallanes Renovables Ocean 2G project (left and below (Source: Magallanes Renovables)) is an exciting example of the testing underway at EMEC sites right now. A floating platform carries underneath a dual-headed turbine which generates electricity from the force of the tide rushing past the device. The goal of Ocean 2G is to produce a fully tested device ready to export to global markets.
The commercial viability of renewable energy devices is the focus of EMEC. Tidal energy has a predicted global energy capacity of 120GW. The U.K is excellently positioned within Europe as an island nation to lead the way in tidal energy production with over half of Europe’s tidal energy capacity in British waters (around 10GW). In fact, the Pentland Firth (the stretch of water between Orkney and mainland Scotland) has the potential to supply half of Scotland power via tidal devices. Thomas Adcock, the author of a recent study completed by Oxford University, stated that (quoted in www.marinenergybiz.com) “It is almost certainly the best site for tidal stream power in the world,” noting strong tides shifting from the Atlantic to the North Sea in just an eight-mile channel. He went on to say that a developed tidal energy site could potentially generate roughly half of Scotland’s entire annual electricity needs.
The exciting global potential of technology being developed in a far corner of the U.K. has placed Orkney at the heart of a growing international industry. The Scottish government targets of; 1) generating 100% of Scotland's electricity demand from renewables by 2020, 2) delivering 50% of Scotland's total energy consumption from renewables by 2030, and 3) reducing Scotland's CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050 rely on new technologies such as tidal.
Investing in technology which will drive the energy markets of the future is a so far largely unrecognised strength of the U.K. As the U.K. leaves the EU and economic uncertainty looms, Britain must capitalise on knowledge, experience and existing infrastructure surrounding the renewable energy industry. If we seek to be a global, outward looking economic player post-Brexit, we must target areas which have tidal energy potential such as Oceanica, China, North America, Argentina, Russia, France, India and South Korea. The work of a small team on an island at the top of the country which at first may have seemed inconsequential, has profound potential for our national energy demands, and our place in a changing global energy market.
At the time of writing, Kristopher Leask is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations.