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Whatever happened to wave power?

By Dave Elliott

‘The average rated capacity of wave energy devices over the past three years (2015-2017) was 70% lower than (in) the period between 2000 and 2014. In contrast tidal stream saw a 124% increase in the average rated capacity during the same period’. So says a report from Imperial College London and Strathclyde University, looking at what went wrong with the UK wave energy programme.

It’s no secret that wave energy has not developed as fast as tidal stream energy technology. Many wave devices have been tested and some are still under test, but it has proved harder to extract energy from the often turbulent wave environment than from the relatively calm undersea tidal flows. There have also been funding and programme management issues, as this new study reports. It claims that there was premature emphasis on commercialization. The requirement for state-supported developers to secure private-sector match funding had brought ‘intense investor pressure to reach commercialisation as quickly as possible’.

The report says that a major institutional barrier was ‘the overwhelming emphasis on full-scale device demonstration, with a view to ‘fast tracking’ progress to commercial array-scale projects before the underpinning early- to mid-stage R&D had been performed. Reasons for the UK going ‘too big, too soon’ included public and private sector funds being made available to progress the technology as quickly as possible following developers’ highly optimistic claims about the promise of wave energy. The outcome was that developers had over-promised in order to receive funds but then subsequently under-delivered, in turn eroding investors’ confidence in wave energy and reducing their willingness to invest in the technology, triggering the collapse of leading firms (e.g. Pelamis) and further undermining the sector’s legitimacy. Underpinning these developments was a poor understanding of the scale of the innovation challenge and the associated time and funds required to overcome it, as well as a lack of rigorous, objective procedures to review the credibility of funding proposals.’

Ouch! A bad end of term report. But wave energy is not dead – and some remedies for the programme failings are obvious … take it more slowly and don’t expect instant profitability. Imperial College London’s Jim Skea also offered these insights: ‘the report points towards two weaknesses in wave innovation that can be remedied: first the lack of convergence on a dominant design that has been the key to success for other renewable technologies. Second, fragmentation of support across many overlapping schemes’.

The first point is tricky – innovation requires diversity at least at first, and we’ve not yet reached the stage when one design is clearly the winner. The second point, however, comes out strongly from the report. The study found ‘an extremely complex wave energy innovation policy landscape, managed by numerous different funding agencies across three levels of government (Scotland, the UK and the EU). This landscape has also been fast changing, with a succession of new schemes emerging, each with their own eligibility criteria and objectives. An important change has been the clear shift from commercially focused, full-scale device RD&D programmes in the mid-2000s and early 2010s, some with an explicit focus on arrays (e.g. Marine Energy Array Demonstrator (MEAD)), to innovation programmes supporting early-stage development through to large-scale prototype demonstration (e.g. Wave Energy Scotland)’.

The study covered the period from 2000 to the present, and says that ‘UK wave energy innovation performance was measurably stronger against most indicators in the second half of the period since 2000 (c. 2008–2016) than the first (c. 2000–2007) both in absolute and relative terms but that performance has started to decline in recent years across some of these indicators, such as number of patents and level of installed capacity’. The programme has performed increasingly poorly in terms of market formation, with the number of wave energy developers steadily falling from 30 in 2011 to 24 in 2016, with 14 developers filing for administration during this time, including market leaders Pelamis and Aquamarine Power. Another key indicator is cumulative installed capacity, which, despite growing from 0.5MW in 2008 to 3.5MW in 2012, fell to 1.2MW in 2016.

The report says ‘both indicators suggest a shrinking market’.  Can it recover? It will be hard. UK R&D funding for wave energy is now falling….and EU funding is uncertain after BREXIT. As yet there is no sign of wave projects getting anywhere near the cost level that would enable them to compete for support under the government’s CfD capacity auction system. Even tidal power is having problems with that. Work on wave energy will continue, with the Scottish government still providing support and, as ever, there are some interesting projects underway e.g. the 1MW Wello Penguin, on test at the Orkney EMEC site, with EU funding. Seatricity’s buoy-type system also looks interesting. However, overall, it’s not looking too hopeful for the rapid development of wave energy.

So did it fall, or was it pushed? The report just says that, ‘explicit government targets for wave energy deployment have steadily reduced in ambition before being removed altogether by the UK Government… Whilst there was a large number of UK government publications (e.g. white papers, parliamentary reports) calling for the need to support wave energy, there was a clear change in direction from the early 2010s, with a removal of formal wave energy deployment targets & a decline in vocal support from government ministers. This was at odds with the UK general public’s support for wave & tidal energy, which averaged 74% since 2012, greater than the figure for onshore wind (67%) & equal to that for offshore wind (74%)’.

Should new policies be tried? The UK wave energy resource is very large and it seems foolish to ignore it and the potential for exporting the technology to other countries with good wave resources. Although there is work going on elsewhere (e.g. with buoy-type designs, like OPT in the USA and CETO in Australia), but the UK is still a leader in the field. The report suggests that ‘special case’ treatment might be given to wave power work: Emerging technologies, such as wave energy, can be out-competed for subsidies on a cost basis when indirect competition with significantly more mature technologies. Specific examples include separating wave energy from the same […] CfD allocation as significantly cheaper technologies such as offshore wind energy and avoiding wave energy becoming bundled into wider marine energy RD&D programmes, where it must compete with more mature technologies such as tidal range and tidal stream.’

In an ideal world, yes, it could and maybe should be protected for a while. A ring-fenced 100MW of wave and tidal stream capacity was earmarked in the first round of the CfD, with a £305/MWh indicative strike price set, but there were no takers, and this protection has now been abandoned. At present, the whole emphasis of UK energy policy is to go for ruthless market competition, so it does not look very promising for wave energy. There may be isolated niche markets where some types of wave energy systems might prosper, and clever new ideas will no doubt continue to emerge, with, hopefully, costs coming down, as has happened with wind and PV solar. But for the moment, sadly, wave energy looks somewhat becalmed.

Read other reactions to the ‘Examining the Effectiveness of support for UK Wave Energy innovation since 2000: Lost at Sea or a new wave of innovation?’ report.

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