Body Blow for Wave Energy

Wave energy in Scotland and the UK suffered perhaps its biggest setback to date following the recent announcements that two of its flagship companies were in severe difficulty.  Pelamis Wave Power entered administration, whilst Aquamarine Power is to reduce its workforce by 60%.  This follows the departure of several other key players in the past two years. Further bad news from wave energy’s closest relative came only a week before the Pelamis statement, when Siemens confirmed they intend to sell their tidal energy company, Marine Current Turbines. The Scottish Green Party  proceeded to accuse the Scottish government of abandoning wave power and to use some of the money it received in last weeks UK Autumn statement to support wave power jobs in Scotland. Whilst this remains to be seen, it is perhaps more important to consider how both the UK and  Scottish the governments financial support to date has been spent and how it might invest future sums. In particular the balance between the funding to support  mature  full scale WECs and that invested in the research and development of earlier stage WECs and more fundamental research. By the time companies get to full scale prototype stage, the cash burn rate is much larger  (roughly proportional to the devices scale)  if the technology has still not been adopted by this stage, then the company in unlikely to continue without public financial support, as investors appear so far to not be inclined to back a technology until a route by which it will be viable without unsustainable subsidies is apparent. The mistake made by some in the industry has been to get too big too quickly, before it is clear that a particular technology can be competitive in the long term. That is not to say that valuable lessons have not been learned by deploying full scale devices, but unfortunately most of this knowledge will now remain in the heads of the people involved in its development, or languish on computer disks found in the liquidators office.

For many of us who have been employed in this sector and suffered its ups and down over the past few years, this inevitable conclusion has been all too obvious. The problems faced by wave energy to compete on a level playing field with fossil fuels or other renewables are significant and cannot be solved without either great luck or great research and development programmes, neither of which have occurred. The slow rate of progress to date is in part, due to the  large number of variables which influence the cost of wave powered electricity and have necessarily spawned a large number of species (i.e. a lack of convergence in the technology) with each of its offspring requiring parents and nurturing to adulthood. This has been both expensive and time consuming, only to find that the offspring are still not capable of leaving home and standing on their own feet. To make matters worse the venture capital funding route, which has been taken by many companies, has pushed the industry in the direction of full scale prototypes before it was ready,  along with the large numbers of staff now required to now run the projects and trouble shoot the full scale technical problems, resulting in a cash hungry but uneconomic wave energy converter.

So where do were go now?  The day following the collapse of Pelamis, came a statement from the Energy minister, of the Scottish Government’s  intention to fund a body known as  “Wave Energy Scotland”  with the objective of bringing together “the best engineering and academic minds to collaborate in a research and development programme to accelerate wave technology further”. If there is any substance in this statement, then this would appear to be an acceptance of the previous failings, and a brave step in the direction of longer term, publically funded, industry-academia partnerships, operating on on academic timescales. However it appears from further details, that so far the new body has no funding, timescales, staff or base and was merely a statement of intention, leaving the redundant staff from the flagship companies with limited options, if they are not picked up by a passing wave powered ship,  other than to leave the industry or leave the country for one with a different approach to mastering ocean wave energy.

Peter Arnold,  Minerva Dynamics     14.12.14