Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Mr Thomas Thorpe


  1.1  I am an employee of ETSU (part of AEA Technology), which has already contributed to this enquiry through the DTI's memorandum. However, I have been requested to submit my individual memorandum to the Select Committee.

  1.2  My main areas of expertise are energy and environment, in which I undertake work for Government Departments, international organisations (eg the EC and the IEA) and a wide range of industry. In addition, I am occasionally called to the DTI's Programme to provide independent expert advice on wave energy. I am currently co-ordinator of the European Thematic Network on Wave Energy.

  1.3  My involvement in wave energy began in 1989 when, as a member of the Department of Energy's Chief Scientist's Group, I was asked by the (then) Department of Energy to undertake an independent review of wave energy. This was concluded in 1992 [1] and I conducted a further review in 1999 [2].

  1.4  The following is a brief submission on a vast and complex topic. Additional material can be supplied if requested by the Select Committee. I include a copy of a general report [3][4], which should provide additional technical details should they be required.


  2.1  The potential adverse environmental impacts of emissions from energy production using fossil fuels are widely recognised. This has increased the world-wide interest in renewable energy technologies, resulting in significant deployment of some renewable energy technologies (eg onshore wind) and a growing interest in others. Electricity derived from waves could play a role alongside these other renewable energy technologies in mitigating environmental impacts.

  2.2  Wave energy represents a potentially significant resource if the technology can be successfully developed. The main UK Government sponsored research took place between 1974 and 1984. This was curtailed in 1984, because the technologies at that time were estimated to be uneconomic. At the time of closing, it would be true to say that the UK led the world in wave energy research and know-how. Since the mid 1990's, interest in wave energy has been growing, mainly thanks to the efforts of small engineering companies world-wide. Several commercial wave energy schemes are currently being installed overseas (as well as one in the UK) and some of these have secured contracts for large-scale deployment. In addition, conventional energy producers are now diversifying into this technology.

  2.3  In the UK, there are now only two companies left that are actively developing wave energy devices. In 1999, the UK Government reopened its wave energy programme and through this it is providing support to these companies inter alia. Nevertheless, despite these positive developments, wave energy development in the UK is being overtaken by overseas developments, which would result in non-UK companies exploiting this potentially important resource in much the same way as non-UK companies dominate the wind turbine industry.


  3.1  At present, about 16 wave energy devices have been installed world-wide, of which two have failed in service and several have been decommissioned[5]. A further six wave energy devices are currently under construction overseas, most of which are purely commercial developments. This indicates that the technology required for efficient generation from wave energy is "available" but not yet mature. In addition, these devices have to demonstrate their long-term reliability. This view agrees with the findings of a major study commissioned by the DTI [4].


  4.1  The deployment of "commercial" (ie non Government funded) wave energy schemes is relatively recent. Therefore, the technology is still undergoing development and costs continue to be reduced. Work undertaken for the UK Government and others [1, 2] indicates a substantial improvement in predicted generating costs over time (Figure 1), so that several devices are predicted to have generating costs between 4 and 8p/kWh. These reductions are similar in scale to those achieved in wind energy, albeit without the large Government support provide to that industry in many countries.

  4.2  At these prices, wave energy is competitive with several other renewable energy technologies. It would also compete in supplying electricity to isolated or island communities, where the competition is from diesel generation. It cannot yet compete commercially against conventional fossil fuel generation but it could become commercially viable at a later date, depending on improvements in the technology, achieving economies of scale and proving their long-term reliability.

  4.3  Wave energy developers still experience some problems in gaining investor confidence but this is being overcome, for example

    —  Wavegen, a UK developer of wave energy, has received significant support from 3i (a venture capital company) and British-Borneo (an oil company).

    —  Woodside, a major Australian energy producer, recently took a 5 per cent equity in Ocean Power Technologies, a US developer of an offshore wave energy device, which valued the Australian branch of the company at $60,000,000.

    —  Energetech, a company developing a shoreline device, has received significant investment in its Australian branch from Primergy, a leading developer of renewable energy schemes.


  5.1  There are two main commercial projects running in the UK:

    —  The LIMPET—a 500kW shoreline Oscillating Water Column deployed by Wavegen (Inverness) on the Scottish island of Islay in November 2000.

    —  The Pelamis—a 750kW floating offshore device being developed by Ocean Power Delivery (Edinburgh) for deployment offshore in 2002.

  5.2  Both of these projects applied successfully to the Third Scottish Renewables Order (the first renewables order open to wave) and they were awarded Power Purchase Agreements. While the LIMPET has functioned better than expected, both projects will have to demonstrate their success in terms of proving their reliability. Both projects have been successful in attracting significant support from both industry and the DTI.

  5.3  In addition, there is research and development going on in several universities on devices and fundamentals of wave energy. Some of these projects (which are now restricted to funding through the EPSRC) are on devices with the potential for the lowest generating costs that I have so far assessed, in particular the Sloped IPS buoy at Edinburgh University and the PS Frog at Lancaster University. It is too soon in the R&D cycle to evaluate whether these projects will be successful.

  5.4  The Select Committee asked the specific question "Why did past projects fail?". This is an important question, because perceived past failures have made it difficult for entrepreneurs in wave energy to gain credibility and commercial backing. However, it is worthwhile considering the validity of this perceived "failure" before going on to learn any lessons from previous projects

  5.5  The UK's Wave Energy Programme between 1974 and 1984 started with a completely new technology, about which almost nothing was known. Development of this technology necessitated the synthesis of many disciplines (oceanography, meteorology, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, moorings, electrical engineering, etc etc). Despite this daunting task, the Department of Energy's Programme developed numerous technically viable designs and reduced the costs of generation from those designs by factors of 4-9 during its lifetime, with prospects for further cost reductions. Whilst it is true that, at the time of the curtailment of the Programme, the generating costs were uneconomically high, the achievements of this Programme were considerable and highly regarded by many. Some of this hard-earned knowledge was put to use in developing the UK's prototype device on the Isle of Islay in the late 1980s, a device which has probably generated more knowledge and in-service data than any other device world-wide. The labelling of the Department's achievements in this field as a "failure" does not do justice to the Programme or the many people and organisations involved.

  5.6  Coming now to lessons which may be learned from previous "failures". My observations are those of an independent outsider.

    —  Closure of the Programme was taken to be failure. However, as the developments since 1984 show, there were still improvements to be made when the Programme was closed. Therefore, the lesson (if any) is that such decisions can be made only when sufficient is known about a technology for its likely mature characteristics to be estimated. However, the decision to close the Programme has to be taken in a wider context, eg given the limited resources for all renewable energy technologies, a decision had to be made regarding most promising renewable resources (ie those that deserved greater funding or those that could make an earlier contribution to UK energy supplies).

    —  Leadership. Much (if not all) of the previous Programme was undertaken reactively, in response to suggestions, ideas and lobbying from a variety of sources. This led to the effort and financial support being spread very thinly amongst too many designs. My single experience of being asked to comment on the DTI's current programme is that the credibility of the ideas proposed for funding are scrutinised carefully, so that money and effort are not diluted.

    —  Responsibility. In any project I do for industry, there is always one person (or occasionally several) who has responsibility for making the project succeed. This is an important, if not essential, aspect of achieving success. One person has the authority to make the decisions required to ensure success and the responsibility for making those decisions (they may, of course, rely on advice and input from others). In the Government Programmes with which I have been associated, this key position has never been occupied. For instance, there were numerous bodies (eg Task Groups, Advisory Groups, Steering Committees, etc) in the Department of Energy's original Wave Energy Programme but I could find no one to interview who had been charged with the responsibility of making the Programme succeed. It might be that such an allocation of responsibility and authority does not sit well within Government supported work of this nature.


  6.1  Wave energy should play a role alongside other renewable energy technologies in helping to reduce the harmful emissions of greenhouse gases associated with power generation. This technology has started to receive Government funding only recently and, hence, is at a less mature stage than other renewable energy technologies which have been supported continuously for about 20 years. Therefore, care should be exercised in comparing the various technologies at different phases of their R&D cycle.

  6.2  The Marine Technology Foresight Committee recommended that wave energy should be given a higher priority than at present. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution came to a similar decision. Adoption of these recommendations could have the benefit of building an indigenous, export winning technology in an area where there are (as yet) no dominant overseas players. This aspect has been picked up by the Scottish Commission for Wave Energy, which sees this technology as suitable for redeploying effort and resources in its declining fishing, shipbuilding and offshore platform construction industries. By all accounts this view was widely shared by the Scottish Parliament at a recent debate.


  7.1  Government sponsorship for R&D is controlled by the EPSRC (for academic research undertaken in universities) and the DTI (under its New and Renewable Energy support programme) for work with significant industrial support. DTI and EPSRC work closely together in all areas of renewable energy to ensure that their programmes of work are complementary.

  7.2  As always, there are calls for increases in funding (both on renewables in general and wave energy in particular) but these can be assessed only in the light of overall policy and priorities.

  7.3  One aspect that does not appear to have been addressed is how the UK might bring about inward investment in R&D in this technology. This is an area currently being studied by the Scottish Commission for Wave Energy.


  8.1  The Government has placed the environment "at the heart of policy making" and is committed to combining environmental sustainability with economic and social progress. Prudent use of resources, including renewable resources, is a key part of the UK's sustainable development strategy. In addition, the UK is playing a leading role in the fight against climate change. It has put in place a strong programme of measures to reduce emissions, to achieve and go beyond its Kyoto target. Development of renewable energy sources of energy is an important part of this. Renewable sources of energy emit no greenhouse gases in generating electricity, or are carbon neutral over their life cycle. Wave energy has the potential to make a significant contribution to these policies, alongside the other steps taken by the Government.

  8.2  General studies have been undertaken on the potential impact of offshore energy devices [2], as well as Environmental Impact Assessments for specific schemes. These studies indicate that, providing schemes are deployed with some care, they will not have any significant adverse effect on the environment and simple steps can be taken to ensure that such schemes are not a navigation hazard.

  8.3  Experience indicates that wave energy schemes can undergo a lengthy and costly planning approval process. Simplifying this process without reducing its rigour (eg by streamlining the number of agencies that need to be consulted) would be of benefit not only to wave energy schemes but also to the growing number of offshore wind energy schemes that are starting to be built.


  9.1  About seven countries have had significant Government sponsored research and development programmes over the past 20 years, with several additional countries recently taking an interest (including countries with poorer resources such as Sri Lanka and Vietnam). Hence, most of the wave devices deployed during this time have been overseas.

  9.2  There is considerably more current overseas activities both in terms of size of schemes and number of schemes. In addition to purely Government sponsored R&D, there are a number of industry-led activities, including the following:

    —  In Australia, an advanced shoreline device is being deployed by Energetech, which already has a power purchase agreement with the local utility in Australia. Enquiries for orders have been received from several other countries and several contracts are in the process of being drawn up.

    —  In Ireland, a 400kW floating device (the McCabe Wave Pump) has been tested as a pilot scheme and a commercial size device is nearing completion.

    —  In the Netherlands, another floating wave device (the Archimedes Wave Swing) has been developed. A 2mW device is nearing the end of construction in Romania for deployment near Portugal.

    —  A floating wave energy device developed by Ocean Power Technology in the USA has been tested at a large scale in the Eastern Atlantic and the first commercial schemes are being built in Australia and in the Pacific, with a number of other schemes in the pipeline.

  9.2  There are early indications of success for many of these overseas companies (eg multiple orders) but long-term success has still to be demonstrated. Nevertheless, it is clear that the UK is falling behind other countries in this technology.


  [1]  "A Review of Wave Energy", ETSU Report R-72 for the DTI, 1992.

  [2]  "A Brief Review of Wave Energy", ETSU Report R-120 for the DTI.

  [3]  "Wave Energy for the 21st Century—Status and Prospects", Renewable Energy World, July/August 2000.

  [4]  Ove Arup, "Wave Energy: Technology Transfer and R&D Recommendations", 2000.

26 February 2001

4   Not printed. Back

5   This includes a shoreline device recently set up in Sri Lanka. However, I am unable to confirm this project independently. Back

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