Op-ed: Harnessing the power of the seas – an expert opinion on the future of marine energy in Wales
The following article is an op-ed piece authored by Professor Ron Loveland, Energy Advisor to the Welsh government. The article first appeared at Marine Energy Wales.
In my innovation and energy focused roles within the Welsh government, I have been a long-term observer in the development of the marine energy sector in Wales as well as Scotland. These developments over the past 20 years and more have been fascinating to watch, but also frustrating as investor-confidence, especially in wave and tidal power technologies, has waxed and waned.
On the other hand, the commercial exploitation of UK offshore wind power, which effectively started in north Wales 20 years ago has been great to see, and is well set on a path to be the dominant source of renewable power on the GB grid, although clearly challenges remain.
However, for an up-to-date review of the situation with these technologies, and their support from the Welsh government, the Marine Energy Wales ‘State of the Sector Report‘ provides an excellent overview of the current opportunities and challenges in each of the sub-sectors, for which it is important to consider each somewhat differently. Fixed offshore wind, floating offshore wind, wave-power, tidal stream and tidal range power systems are all different and their commercial opportunities and challenges should not be conflated.
Looking at each technology in turn, fixed offshore wind projects form the bedrock of the marine energy technologies and with special purpose construction vessels abounding, the challenges are focused more on operation and maintenance efficiencies, turbine -size growth, supply chain and skills limitations, compatibility with other users of our seas (including the natural inhabitants) and grid integration (including through the use of hydrogen related vectors and energy storage technologies).
Some of these also apply to floating wind turbines but in addition, in this sub-sector, there are also questions around the turbine ‘foundation’ designs, moorings and cables and the need for conveniently placed ports to provide the right infrastructure facilities. Each of these are being addressed, usually with the private sector leading the innovation drive in conjunction with enabling public-sector support.
Taking these two sub sectors in combination, we should be set fair in Wales and elsewhere to form international centers of excellence with significant export potential, as well as providing GB with the security of supply which comes from having highly geographically dispersed assets.
The developments involved with capturing the energy of our seas have been more challenging, particularly with wave power, although the potential global wave-power resource is enormous.
At the moment, tidal stream developments in Scotland and Wales lead the pack, with good specialized test facilities which, with sufficient investor confidence and appropriate contract for difference etc. public-sector support, should help the technology become mainstream at scale, but perhaps with an initial focus as a source at the local level of ultra-reliable, periodic low carbon power, to help supply and balance the grid – something which we hope to see explored in Wales where appropriate through our local-area and regional energy plans.
For tidal range projects, we are hopefully entering an era when the focus on affordable, robust and energy-security enabling power supplies will see a stronger interest in tidal lagoons and barrages. With a GB grid system increasingly reliant on weather dependent wind (even at sea) and solar electricity generation, using the power of the ever constant lunar cycle to provide ultra-reliable periodic power, and in some cases direct energy storage (or indirectly via hydrogen) looks to be very attractive, especially at large scale which the new RAB (regulated asset base) financing mechanisms should enable – and which were not readily available for some of the previous attempts to progress the technology.
Of course, there remain considerable technological, commercial and environmental challenges to overcome which is why the Welsh government has recently launched its tidal lagoon researched-focus competition. Finally, returning to the wave power opportunities, it has been encouraging to see a range of new innovative developments in Wales and elsewhere to create devices which can effectively operate in highly challenging, strong wave regime conditions.
The work to demonstrate their potential will hopefully continue but will need, as has been seen previously with other energy technologies, strong pre-commercial innovation support from UK Research and Innovation etc.
This should be enabled by the UK government’s dynamic Net Zero innovation framework and of course the investor backing of those who want to help hasten our net zero energy transition.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Offshore Energy.
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