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Marine Renewable Energy Tech Pushes Forward
David Flanagan
Established in 2003, the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Orkney, Scotland, is a world leader in testing wave and tidal energy technologies in the sea. Having hosted 17 companies with 27 prototypes so far, more marine energy devices have been trialed there than at any other site in the world.

“We’ve proven you can turn seawater into electricity, and we’ve started to do that with higher degrees of reliability,” said Neil Kermode, EMEC managing director.

However, the uncompromising nature of the ocean environment meant from the outset that progress toward the goal of harnessing its massive energy potential was never going to be easy.

Early sectoral interest from utilities and major investors stalled as the scale of the technical challenge—and the costs—became apparent. Some high-profile failures, particularly within the wave sector, didn’t help the cause either, fueling marine energy skeptics.

Developers have therefore had to hold their nerve and weather the storms—literally and metaphorically—with some opting to go back to the drawing board. There’s now a much greater degree of “technical humility” within the industry.

“Marine energy is certainly becoming increasingly diverse, both in terms of scale and approach to the task at hand,” Kermode said. “Many developers are now exploring smaller-scale solutions, individually tailored to particular site conditions or local grid constraints, and there’s a growing realization that there’s no one size fits all in terms of harnessing the ocean’s power.” The costs associated with marine energy will continue to decrease as developers refine devices and operational procedures. “We know the cost of producing energy will come down as we get more efficient at doing it,” Kermode said. “Developers will only get good at doing it through constant practice and repetition, and it’s encouraging to see some of the early-mover companies starting to build multiple machines. We’re now going to see an increase in the rate of innovation taking place because there’s more and more activity upon which to innovate. In due course, that innovation leads to a degree of consolidation and, in turn, marketable products that will attract confident investment. The fact we’re now seeing a much greater degree of repeated activity is a sign we’re at the start of that commercialization journey.”

Progress within the sector is picking up pace, with a remarkable variety of projects underway. At the larger end of the scale is Atlantis Resources’ MeyGen tidal array development in the Pentland Firth, a notorious channel between the Scottish mainland and the Orkney Islands. Previous versions of the turbines being deployed at the site were tested at EMEC. Atlantis plans to install 269 devices, with an output of 398 MW by 2020. The first device was installed in 2016 and operating at full power by year’s end.

Back in Orkney, local developer Scotrenewables Tidal Power is testing its commercial-scale, 2-MW SR2000—the world’s largest floating turbine—at EMEC’s grid-connected Fall of Warness tidal test site. The firm has also secured a Horizon 2020 grant of €10 million for its FloTEC (Floating Tidal Energy Commercialisation) project.

Meanwhile, Dublin-based OpenHydro—the first developer to use EMEC’s Fall of Warness test site and the first to successfully generate tidal electricity to the U.K. national grid—has recently deployed two turbines in Brittany, France, and another two in Nova Scotia, Canada, while continuing to test a scale version of its Open Centre turbine at EMEC.

Other developers are preparing new tidal energy solutions for demonstration at EMEC, including Isle of Wight-based tidal developer Sustainable Marine Energy and Dutch tidal developer Tocardo Tidal Power. The wave energy sector is also seeing highly innovative projects coming to fruition. Last year, Flemish developer Laminaria signed up to test its wave energy converter (WEC) at EMEC’s Billia Croo wave test site, where it will undergo performance testing in 2017. They have also launched a collaborative OCEANERA-NET-funded project, LAMWEC, which will focus on WEC survivability in extreme storm conditions. Meanwhile, Swedish wave energy developer CorPower Ocean is preparing to test a half-scale prototype WEC at EMEC’s scale test site in Scapa Flow following dry rig testing in Stockholm. Led by CorPower, a three-year Horizon 2020-funded innovation program, WaveBoost, has been launched to target a step-change improvement to reliability and performance of the WEC.

A key challenge for the industry is attracting investment for crucial and expensive real-sea demonstrations. EMEC has recently launched the €11 million FORESEA (Funding Ocean Renewable Energy through Strategic European Action) project, offering funding and business development support packages to technology developers to test at Europe’s leading ocean energy test facilities. Funded by the Interreg North-West Europe program, the first call saw 10 ocean energy developers offer support, eight of which are due to test at EMEC. The second call launched in November 2016. With all this positive activity, Kermode remains pragmatic and measured. “I think we should always be vigilant about becoming complacent and thinking we’ve got this covered,” he warned. “The history of technology is littered with occasions when people stopped innovating, or stopped paying attention, and the number of times that technologies have moved overseas or stalled for a generation are legion. We need to guard against that.

“The challenge we face is to make sure we’ve got secure and affordable supplies of energy and jobs available within a low-carbon environment. Marine energy technologies fit with all those objectives, so why would we not push on as hard as we possibly can?”



David Flanagan is an award-winning journalist and writer based in the Orkney Islands, Scotland. He studied journalism at Napier University in Edinburgh, Scotland, then worked for a number of years as a newspaper reporter. He has been a freelance journalist since 2002, producing news and feature articles for a variety of publications and other media outlets.


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