Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. Have you any view then about the particular, if you like, mechanistic, engineering solutions, whether under-sea turbines, tidal fences, the various types of coastal-located wave devices; which model do you think is likely to be ready for market first?
  (Professor Salter) I think I am personally too close to give you a detached opinion on that.

  61. Perhaps Mr Thorpe will give us an overview?
  (Professor Salter) I can tell you what the characteristics of a good device are, and I have tried to make mine fit that; but I think that I have always been trying to make the maximum use of the resource, at the cost of making things more advanced than they would need to be to begin with. So, if you like, I am still going on, trying to make Boeing 707s, knowing that other people will want to go through the biplane and piston engine stage.


  62. When you say the maximum use of the resource, it does not mean necessarily maximum use of the power available, because there is so much of that, you can be profligate with that; you are trying to make maximum use of the cash resource turned into steel and turned into—
  (Professor Salter) No, I mean making maximum use of what is in the water now.

  63. But why, because there is so much of it, it does not matter whether you are only 25 per cent efficient on that?
  (Professor Salter) You say that now, but you will not say that when you have got to the end of your first resource. If you really want to run Europe on it, you have got to use it effectively; you do not need to do it yet, but it is like thinking that there is an infinite amount, and finding that there is not. I think that we should plan seriously for building wave power installations from Iceland right down to the Cape Wrath, and then right round to Cape St. Vincent, with the breaks for the ships to get through; and if you do that you can think about running three European countries. So it is not that big, it is not big enough for the whole of Europe.

  64. Forgive me, but if I were involved in this I would say to myself, since we are getting virtually nothing out of the sea at the present time, I would rather succeed and be inefficient in my success than go for maximum efficiency and be delayed or fail?
  (Professor Salter) That is an important first step, just as, first of all, you want to start off with the hot-air balloon; but, in the end, you are going to want to use all of it and make it as good as you possibly can.

  65. We probably do not disagree so strongly?
  (Professor Salter) No.

  66. But it is a matter of time between us?
  (Professor Salter) Yes. For instance, I am trying to place my devices as closely packed as possible, so that I am not worried about them bumping into each other. Now I know that it can be actually more efficient, hydronomically to have a solo device that can get energy in from the sides; but if you want to make the best use of every millimetre of sea-front you must, eventually, go for close-packed devices.

  67. Mr Thorpe, Dr Turner did invite you to make an overview comment; since Professor Salter said he was probably a little favoured in one form rather than another, you might have a more impartial view?
  (Mr Thorpe) I think I have worked with 90 per cent of the wave energy devices being developed throughout the world. At this moment, it is impossible to say which are going to be the winners, because they are putting their first devices into the water and they are actually carrying out their research and development on the first demonstration devices, which is a horrendous thing to do, but they have to do that because of cash flow problems. I can say that not just myself but big engineering companies with which I have worked have looked at these devices, and say: "Yes, these are realistic devices, they are technically viable; the only question is, can we make them commercially viable?" There has been a historic reduction in the predicted costs of generating wave energy, of a similar magnitude to that in wind energy, onshore wind; onshore wind has made this reduction in costs through government-supported research and development, but also through massive support in actually putting plant out there. I have done a `back of the envelope' calculation and I think that that support, from various governments, is of the region of £10 billion. Wave energy has managed to make that kind of reduction without that level of support.

Dr Turner

  68. So that implies that potential reduction with full exploitation would be much greater?
  (Professor Salter) Indeed, it would.

Dr Iddon

  69. I am going to look at the commercial viability for a moment, and will just repeat the statement that was given in the earlier session, from a Government memorandum, where the Government stated, and I quote: "None of the wave or tidal stream concepts has yet been demonstrated to be commercially viable". Now I think you have already suggested your answer to that, but I will put the question to you; would you agree with that statement, Mr Thorpe?
  (Mr Thorpe) Commercially viable: I am not quite sure exactly what that would mean. No renewable energy technology starts off being commercially viable; they have got to go up a learning curve, learn how to do things better and cheaper. Wind energy, when it was first supported by the Government, received a price of, I think it was, 11 pence per kilowatt hour. The first demonstration scheme on wave, which started operating last year, received a price of 5.9 pence per kilowatt hour; so it is starting off at almost twice as good as wind started off. It will require some time and some level of support to create an initial market, so that it brings investment into the technologies, both wave and tidal, and generates enough of a market so that these devices can start to pick up economies of scale, because that is where the big price reduction is going to be. After that, yes, I do believe they will be commercially viable.

  70. So, apart from the toilets at the Randolph Hotel, what other major barriers are there to getting the commercial exploitation going?
  (Mr Thorpe) Reference has been made by the earlier presentations about problems with connection to the grid, and very small companies having to bear very large costs for this, costs which are independently calculated to be much smaller than what the utilities are asking. There is the problem of creating an initial market. The idea of having a wave and tidal centre of excellence, or test centre, I think, would be a useful one, because that would finally manage to do what I have singularly failed to do over ten years, and that is to get all the experts to pool their knowledge, to co-operate, experts not just from academia but also from industry. But the main thing I see is providing the initial market.

  71. And the next question is, we are under the impression that the best places to generate wave and tidal energy are the least accessible places to main centres of population, and you heard in the previous session that we discussed transmission costs. Do you think that is a major difficulty, or is it one that can be overcome; and, finally, do you think that, if it is something that cannot be overcome, this wave and tidal energy is something for niche markets, like small islands?
  (Mr Thorpe) Within the UK then, quite definitely, the best areas for generating energy from waves would be off the west coast of Scotland and the southern and western coasts of England; they are not particularly close to major centres of population. Therefore, whenever I have carried out an analysis of this situation, I have included the costs of connection to the nearest part of the high voltage transmission grid, and those costs are 20 per cent of the overall cost of a scheme; that is in the UK. Earlier this year, I had the enjoyment of visiting Australia and working on a wave energy device there, which was 100 kilometres south of Sydney, not particularly inaccessible. When I have looked throughout the world to do a commercial evaluation of the prospects for wave energy, that is, how much wave energy could we get at a commercial basis in the next ten to 20 years, I estimate that the maximum market is something like £500 billion; and with the current generation of wave energy devices, if they fulfil their potential, then the market will be about £200 billion, and that means that it must be accessible in a lot of places.
  (Professor Salter) The Republic of Ireland has a very good wave climate and it has deep water closer in to shore, and it could be the case that it would be best to put wave plant in there, let the Irish have all the electricity they want, while we come across, and then come across the Irish Sea. So that is another possibility. But it is really rather depressing, when you look at the map of the Scottish grid, how inconveniently it has been arranged; it is as if it had been designed by somebody who did not like wave power.

Mr McWalter

  72. I was interested in your memorandum, where you said there always seems to be a layer, or, indeed, layers, of senior people with negative views about renewables and the power to make them stick; this power seems to be inversely related to the technical knowledge of the subjects. Such flattering remarks suggest perhaps that your view of the Government's position would not be very positive. But might it not be the case that even people who really want to see the renewable systems really expand, they might form the view that this is not the best horse to back? And I note that government funding on research, say, for photovoltaic cells is quite a lot higher than it is for wave power. So getting past your general view, really, do you think that there is an overall government strategy which actually gives wave and tidal energy the wrong prioritisation within an overall system which is quite expanding, in terms of its venture research?
  (Professor Salter) That is what those sort of people were saying about wind energy in the early seventies, because they dismissed that as well, even people who later on made their careers in wind energy. So I think we are going to need all of the renewables, and I really would like to contribute to as many of them as I can. At the moment it is looking quite interesting to use some of the power conversion mechanisms that we developed for wave for the power take-off of offshore wind turbines. We can save a great deal of weight and we can make them much more controllable. I do not want to bang the drum for any single renewable, I want them all to succeed, and I think that we will need them all; the world needs them all, even if perhaps Britain does not, but the world needs them all.

  73. So all of them?
  (Professor Salter) Yes.

  74. An open cheque, as it were, in terms of research funding?
  (Professor Salter) What you need to spend to do the research is tiny compared with what you are spending on non-renewable energy. A few PhD studentships can have a tremendous impact.


  75. Did you mean conventional energy then, because you were talking about renewable energy, you say it is tiny compared with what we are spending on renewable energy? I do not think that made sense?
  (Professor Salter) A tiny proportion of what we are spending on all kinds of energy would give you a very good research programme; even what they are spending on the public relations for it would be enough. So, I think, to get it going, we must believe that the politicians want it to succeed; that is the feeling you get from going to Denmark, you feel that everybody wants it to happen, you do not feel that there is anybody pulling in the wrong direction.

Mr McWalter

  76. You might feel that about wind power but not about wave power?
  (Professor Salter) No, about wave power, too.

  77. You feel that is the place to go?
  (Professor Salter) Yes. I mentioned in my evidence about the funding for a prototype; any new inventor of a wave power device in Denmark can get 50,000 kroner.

  78. But they do not have any industrial size prototypes, do they?
  (Professor Salter) They did not have an aerospace industry when they started doing wind, but they have got one now, they have got a very vigorous wind industry. So they want wave energy to happen, they are desperate to make it happen, and I think they will succeed.

  79. So, okay, currently, this whole process of leading through from R&D to commercial exploitation, if you do not feel the Government's relation to that is appropriate for wind and tidal power, and, I must say, I am inclined to agree with you perhaps, how are we going to address that, what factors do we need to address, in order to try to—
  (Professor Salter) You need to have a transparent method of assessing the designs, which is the great thing that Tom Thorpe has contributed; before that, it was an opaque thing, we put in drawings and somebody came back with numbers and we could not challenge them. That is the first step. I think the second step is, you must do very good model testing and computer modelling, the computers are getting very good at predicting the way things behave in waves, they are much better than they were just a few years ago. So I would like to see rigorous model tests and computer tests and spread sheets for cost prediction. We need also to get a more precise way of working out what things cost. Much of that information is actually a commercial secret. In many cases, somebody will be fired if they tell you what it costs per tonne or per metre of weld. We need to find ways of getting that information, in order to optimise the designs. Then you can then make really very good decisions. If this data is done well enough and presented well enough and clearly enough, in a uniform way, I think you can then make much more rapid progress than by building bigger devices and testing them at sea, with the risk that you may have overlooked something.

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