Kate Mackenzie A mixed week for the embryonic marine energy industry

The week isn’t even half over but it’s already been a busy one for the emerging marine energy industry. Marine energy – the term encompasses both wave and tidal power – is still in its infancy, apart from tidal barrage systems, of which there are a handful in operation around the world. Of those, France’s la Rance is the biggest, with a capacity of up to 240MW, although the UK looks likely to install an even bigger system at the Severn estuary.

Trident Energy

Source: Trident Energy

But apart from barrages, it’s a curious industry and one still very much in development mode. That means a lot of things can go wrong: a wave energy machine installed off the UK’s north Suffolk coast fell over on Sunday, which must have been a dramatic sight. From the website of Trident Energy, which designed the machine:

Trident Energy can confirm that at approximately 12.35 on Sunday 20 September 2009 a problem during the deployment phase led to its demonstration wave generator overturning as it was being taken out to sea to begin its year-long offshore trial.

Another relatively well-publicised wave energy installation, created by Scottish company Pelamis Wave Power and deployed off the Portuguese coast a year ago, is a huge, snake-like series of articulated pipes. This project also ran into technical problems and is now offline – it’s not necessarily the end of the project, but the picture has been complicated by the collapse of the main investor in the project, Babcock & Brown.

So, there are plenty of opportunities to scoff in the fledgling marine industry. But the point is, it is fledgling – there are multiple different technologies still in development, particularly in wave power, and wind and solar have many years and vast amounts of investment on marine.

Pelamis Wave Power

Source: Pelamis Wave Power

Indeed, financing for marine energy has fallen away from its peak in 2007 and this year will be even worse than last, according to New Energy Finance. But there are also some causes for optimism. Aquamarine Power, another Scottish wave energy developer, raised £10m – a sizeable sum for new energy technology in these times – and Pelamis says plans for a trial of its new wave machines in Orkney next year is still going ahead, supported by utility E.On and Scotland’s European Marine Energy Centre. Another utility, Scottish and Southern, is the principle investor in Aquamarine while ScottishPower Renewables is investing in a tidal stream project. Where there are big waves, or suitable conditions for other forms of marine energy such as tidal stream, interest in marine energy will no doubt continue until the technology is more mature.

Another big problem faced by many forms of marine energy is installing and maintaining them. Repairs at sea are more complicated and expensive than on land. To this end, the UK’s Carbon Trust gave out grants  to Pelamis and Marine Current Technologies, which developed a small tidal stream system operating in Northern Ireland – and today it announced another £22m in funding for development of marine energy technologies.

Related links:

Severn: Prepare for a dust-up (FT Energy Source, 16/07/09)