What Scotland needs to be a major player in the global wave energy industry

As well as being good for the environment, wave energy will boost Scotland’s economy if the country can maintain its competitive edge in this sector, according to expert observers.

Picture: Shutterstock

Commentators also say that if wave energy continues to evolve and resources are put to good use, Scotland will become an exporter of wave energy technology.

The industry is at an early stage compared to other renewables, but few dispute that Scotland is leading the way in its development. For example, with the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Orkney, which provides wave and tidal energy converter developers and open-sea testing facilities.

The establishment of Wave Energy Scotland (WES) in 2014, at the request of the Scottish Government, as a subsidiary of Highlands and Islands Enterprise is another sign of the importance placed on this form of renewable power. WES was set up to drive the search for solutions to challenges facing the sector and runs the world’s largest wave energy technology development programme.

Tim Hurst of Wave Energy Scotland

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He explains: “We believe that wave energy can play an important role in Scotland’s response to the global climate emergency, and the decarbonisation of our energy system.”

Research has shown the potential economic impact of wave energy fulfilling its potential.

The Catapult Offshore Renewable Energy report, Tidal Stream Wave Energy Cost Reduction and Industrial Benefit, published in 2018, calculated that wave energy would have a net cumulative benefit to the UK of £4 billion by 2040.

Cameron McNatt of Mocean Energy

This would consist of £1.5bn GVA from the domestic market and £3.7bn GVA from exports, offset by £1.2bn of revenue support. In addition, the report predicted that the industry would support a total of 8,100 jobs by 2040.

Economic impact

The research pointed out that, as a lot of economic benefit in terms of GVA and jobs is expected to be generated in coastal areas –many with a need for economic regeneration – the development of wave energy would have additional value over and above what was quantified in the report.

The study also pointed to the UK’s world-leading expertise in this area in the academic world.

Tim Hurst, WES managing director, attests to this, saying: “The University of Edinburgh is one of the leading international universities on marine energy, along with Strathclyde. They are involved in just about every international project in research.

“There are a lot of students coming through who are expressing an interest in working in this industry, often from a social responsibility and ethical point of view. And they want to work in an emerging technology.”

WES takes a rigorous approach to developing technologies through five programmes: Power Take-off; Novel Wave Energy Converter; Structural Materials; Control Systems and Quick Connection Systems.

David Langston, WES programme manager, says: “These programmes were launched to identify areas where there were opportunities to develop new technology that could reduce cost. You need technology that is reliable as you are putting it out into the open sea.

“The size of the prize depends on getting the cost down and that’s what we’re doing at the moment.”

As with most early-stage technology, a big challenge for wave energy is to make it affordable and attractive to investors.

Wheelhouse points out that Scotland has an estimated two-thirds of the UK’s wave resources, but he cautions that the economic benefits will not be realised unless Westminster acts to deliver cost reductions.

“We’ve played our part in supporting the wave energy sector by establishing and investing over £40 million in Wave Energy Scotland, which is the biggest wave energy development programme in the world.

“However, the UK Government should match this commitment with much-needed revenue support and market mechanisms to enable wave energy to commercially compete with more established renewable energy sectors, and to see large scale, commercial deployment in Scottish and UK waters.”

Morag Watson, director of policy at trade body Scottish Renewables, makes a similar point, saying: “Wave and tidal stream power are effectively locked out of the UK energy market.

“It is important that the UK Government recognises that wave technology is at a different stage of development to mature renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar power, and provides continued innovation funding support for early-stage development, while also using innovative mechanisms to allow more developed technologies to sell the power they can generate.”

As part of WES’s Novel Wave Energy Converter programme, two Scottish firms – Mocean Energy and AWS Ocean Energy – received £7.7m to develop their technologies.

Edinburgh-based start-up Mocean Energy is progressing its Blue Horizon technology to be deployed off the coast with the aim of delivering Grid-scale power.

Dr Cameron McNatt, co-founder and managing director of the firm, started working in wave energy in his home country of the US, before coming to Scotland in 2012 to study for his PhD at the University of Edinburgh.

Two years after his arrival in Scotland, McNatt witnessed the failure of Scottish wave energy companies Pelamis and Aquamarine. He then met Dr Chris Retzler, who had been a founder and principal scientist at Pelamis, and together they decided to found Mocean and apply for WES funding.

Mocean was successful in getting support to develop its Blue Horizon hinged-raft wave energy converter. The firm also took part in the Aberdeen-based Oil and Gas Technology Centre’s business accelerator programme last year.

McNatt says: “We fulfil an interesting niche, in that we are a renewable business within the oil industry. We like to see our technology as a stepping stone – not just for us, but for the industry to familiarise itself with wave energy and gradually invest more in it.

He agrees that Scotland is ideally positioned when it comes to wave energy, and says: “I’m American, but I came to Scotland to work in wave energy. Scotland has WES which is a unique funding mechanism. And through oil and gas there’s a lot of offshore expertise that needs to be channelled to another technology.

“Offshore wind is huge, but the technology has been established and is being built in other countries, such as Denmark and Germany. We have the opportunity in Scotland to develop technology that can be exported, and the Scottish Government sees that. There’s a sense that the UK missed out when wind technology was developing.”

According to McNatt, the biggest challenges the industry faces are technical and engineering issues, as wave energy devices have to be robust enough to survive all conditions in the open sea.

Nevertheless, he remains optimistic and believes mistakes have been learned from the business failures of Pelamis and Aquamarine. He explains: “Fundamentally, they couldn’t get the cost of energy down low enough and fast enough.”

McNatt adds that while Pelamis’ technology remained virtually unchanged over several years, Mocean, with Retzler on board is constantly working on developing new designs.

He says that this approach is encouraged by the structure of the WES programme, which assesses technology at three stages before devices can be built.

McNatt says: “WES has been a huge launching pad for us and I’m looking forward to the day we have our prototype built and it can be put in the water. That will be a momentous occasion.