SOME time in the next few weeks, George Leslie will watch, with anxious pride, a strange contraption trundling round Lerwick harbour, towed by a tractor.
Producing energy from the sea is the alchemy of the 21st century. With fossil fuels a declining resource, almost every country with a coastline is exploring the possibilities. Millions of pounds are being invested in experiments around the world. France, Canada and Russia have built power stations using the tide, but they are unwieldy and inefficient. Successful experiments have been conducted in Orkney using wave energy, but they are still at an early stage. Maybe, just maybe, George Leslie has the answer.
Now 70, he is an inveterate inventor, the kind that Britain was once famous for. Working from the study of his big rambling house in Kirkwall, he has, down the years, come up with ingenious ideas to help farmers dry their crops, pump oil ashore, and find ways of scaring seals away from the salmon nets of Orkney fishermen. But this, he admits, is the biggest project of them all.
The Department of Industry, which ran a multi-million-pound competition for new ideas in wave or tide energy, has dismissed Leslie's invention. It wrote and told him so, in that dead, bureaucratic language which showed that it had neither studied nor properly understood his idea. For, amateur though he is, Leslie has the mind of a true physicist, and he has worked out, in meticulous detail, exactly how his device will work.
It is based on a complex system of expansion and compression coils containing a mixture of air and water, capable of producing high levels of energy. The coils are contained within a steel cylinder fitted with fins, which would float just below the surface of the water, anchored to the sea-bed by chains, and rotated by the force of the tides. Leslie has already demonstrated, on a small, home-made model, that it can produce pressure sufficient to drive a jet of water vertically into the air. The larger the machine, the greater the power.
Although the DTI has rejected his invention, Shetland Islands Council has backed him with sufficient funds to make a working model. The Leslie Pump is big enough to generate 10 kilowatts, enough to power a large house. It will be tested in Lerwick harbour. "The great value of my device is that it has no moving parts," he told me. "Therefore, you can make it as big as you want, and it is extremely reliable. I am building a model big enough to pump seven tons of water 30 feet into the air. I reckon that just 200,000 worth of steel would be enough to produce 1,000 kilowatts of energy."
Since this is roughly what a small wind turbine produces, and since the government is offering three times the price per unit of power produced from tidal energy as it does for wind, the benefits, in terms of both alternative energy and cash yield, are dramatic. Shetland has its eye on the potential of the great tidal race between Unst and Yell in the north. George reckons that this alone could produce the energy equivalent of a nuclear station. The stakes are high.
Round the coast from the Orkney harbour town of Stromness, a very different approach is being taken. Here there is all the hi-tech investment that George Leslie lacks. Emec, a company set up to conduct experiments in wave energy, has established four offshore test berths at Billia Croo, a windswept bay which has been described as "probably the best location in Europe for testing commercial-scale devices". Helped by an investment of 6 million from the DTI, Highland and Islands Executive and the Scottish Executive, Emec has laid sophisticated cables, installed a carefully landscaped substation to convert wave power into electricity, and opened the facility to a Scottish company, Ocean Power Delivery.
OPD has already succeeded in generating power which has actually been fed into the grid, using a remarkable device known as Pelamis, the Latin word for sea-snake. A series of large tubes, linked together, float on the surface of the water, rising and falling with the waves, generating power which is then transmitted via the cables along the sea-bed and into the substation.
Andrew Mills, Emec's managing director, is excited by what has been achieved so far. "It is a milestone," he says. It means that Britain is, for the moment, ahead of the game in harnessing wave power, a world leader in one of the most competitive areas of alternative energy. But there is a sting in the tail. The next, crucial stage of commercial development will take place, not in Scotland, but in Portugal. The Portuguese government wants OPD to build 30 of its machines and begin generating power off the Atlantic coast. A brilliant invention, tested successfully in Britain, will be exploited elsewhere - it is a grimly familiar story.
The early period of any major industrial development requires substantial backing. So far neither the UK government, nor Scottish Power nor the Scottish Executive has been able to offer OPD the funding guarantees it needs to make the crucial jump from experiment to actual production. The Portuguese government is not so hesitant. It has decided that, if any country is to become a world leader in sea energy, it is to be Portugal, not Britain, and it has sent OPD a letter of intent which contains strong enough guarantees to lure it away from Scotland for the next phase of development. "This is the fear," says Mills, "that other countries will make it more attractive for commercial developers."
Richard Yemm, OPD's managing director, admits he is disappointed. "It is a bit of a pain," he said. He believes that the potential benefit for Scotland would be enormous if this country were to become a world leader in manufacturing wave machines. "When Denmark cornered the market in wind turbines, it generated 25,000 jobs. We could virtually double that here. But Portugal has decided it wants to be the Denmark of wave power, and so far that's the way it seems to be going." Although the first three machines will be built in Scotland, thereafter the work will be done in Portugal.
There is, however, a window of opportunity. If, by the end of this year, the Scottish Executive can come up with the financial guarantees that OPD needs, Scotland would still be in with a chance. It does seem a risk worth taking. If you decide to put public money into a world-beating experiment in alternative energy, it seems absurd not to take the next crucial step of exploiting the results.
Both Mills and Yemm pay tribute to the backing they have had so far from the Executive, but now that the technology is there, it requires an extra surge of political will to make it happen.
Over in Shetland, George Leslie feels exactly the same. He will watch his tidal pump trundle round Lerwick harbour, and, as the water spouts higher, he hopes to able to tell the DTI, with ill-concealed triumph, to "stuff it down their stupid throats".
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Weather for Edinburgh
Monday 20 May 2013
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