This week, the 25km cable to connect the Wave Hub to the grid – effectively a giant socket into which wave machines can be plugged – is due to be laid (see BBC News Cornwall: Weather delays laying of cable for Cornwall’s Wave Hub). The Wave Hub was originally proposed by an excellent organisation promoting renewable energy in the south west of England, Regen South West, and has been pursued and funded by the South West Regional Development Agency, at a cost of £42 million.
Once the cable has been laid, the 12 tonne hub will be installed, then undergo a series of tests. If these go well, the Wave Hub will begin delivering electricity to the grid in 2011. It will be the world’s largest wave energy test centre.
This is very welcome. However, we should remember that the Wave Hub will only be a test facility. Opponents of wind farms sometimes argue that they are unnecessary because there is so much energy available from the waves and the tides. This is theoretically correct, but there is still considerable development work to be done on the technologies to harness power from wave and tidal stream. (Tidal stream doesn’t require barrages. Barrages, referred to in this context as tidal range, are a well established technology but would be opposed by many due to the impact on wildlife and landscape.) Wave and tidal stream are about ten years behind wind power in terms of technological development and we cannot wait ten years to allow them to catch up. Wind, wave and tidal stream must all be developed at the same time.
There is already an operational test facility for marine renewables, the European Marine Energy Centre on Orkney, off Scotland. There is also an operational wave farm off Portugal, at present only 2.25Mw (comparable to one wind turbine) but due to be expanded to 20Mw (see Pelamis wave power: agucadoura).
Even before the Wave Hub news, there had been some progress in the UK on marine renewables this year. In February, the Carbon Trust awarded grants totalling £22 million to four tidal technologies and two wave technologies (see Carbon Trust: Marine energy ready for mass deployment by 2020).
The Crown Estate, which manages the sea bed around the UK, is talking in ambitious terms of marine renewables. In March, it agreed leases for ten projects – six wave and four tidal – in the Pentland Firth, off the north coast of Scotland. If build, these would have a total capacity of 1.2Gw – half would be wave and half tidal (see The Crown Estate: Wave and Tidal, Pentland Firth and Orkney Waters).
It is essential to keep up the momentum on marine renewables. They are clearly infant industries, so cannot develop and expand without grants. However, UK politics is dominated by discussion of spending cuts, so no funding stream can be guaranteed. Also, there is a danger of disruption from institutional re-organisation and the ‘bonfire of the quangos’. The coalition government has said that RDAs will be abolished, so it is not clear who will be responsible for the Wave Hub in the future. The Carbon Trust may or may not be abolished, or merged with the Energy Savings Trust, or incorporated into the new Green Investment Bank. At least with a Conservative-led government, we can be confident that the Crown Estate is safe!