Turning the tide?

Elaine Maslin

November 1, 2016

The tidal industry’s high water mark is set to be made next year. Many hope it will be a turning point for an industry still facing many challenges. Elaine Maslin reports.

Atlantis’ AR1500.  Photo from Atlantis. 

By the time you read this, the first turbines in what will form the world’s largest tidal energy array will have been installed. It’s no small achievement and a lot is riding on its success – not least investor interest.

The marine energy industry – wave and tidal – has had its challenges in the past year to 18 months, from key wave energy players going bust to current uncertainty in terms of government support and access to the grid.

But, it’s also had its successes, notably in the tidal sector. Alongside the first, three-turbine phase of the MeyGen tidal energy project being built out, Edinburgh-based Nova Innovation launched the first tidal array to supply electricity to the power distribution network, and Orkney-based Scotrenewables, a floating turbine device developer, has just installed its SR2000 ready for testing at the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Orkney.

MeyGen’s owner, Atlantis Resources, is near financial close on phase 1b of the MeyGen project, with phase 1c expected soon after. The full project will see up to 86 turbines installed. As Atlantis Resources gears up to execute that work, as well as another project at the Sound of Islay, it expects to see costs drop as it industrializes processes, and as investor confidence increases. But, turbine manufacturing capacity is a challenge.

Richard Parkinson, of James Fisher Marine Services. Photo from Tim Winterburn / HIE

This will see an unprecedented 6-12 months of growth for the firm, according to Atlantis Resources CEO Tim Cornelius. The next phases of the MeyGen project will be a “great opportunity to build supply chain. From new boats to kit to unprecedented supply for turbines,” he told Scottish Renewables’ Marine Conference, Exhibition & Dinner in Inverness in mid-September.

While previous years have been described as being the most significant in the industry, next year may very well be that year – at least Cornelius thinks so and he appears to be in the driver’s seat.

Great expectations

There are big expectations around marine energy in Scotland. Lorne Crerar, chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), a public development agency, says 1700 people are employed in the sector across the UK, and that number is expected to rise by 20,000 in the next decade.

EMEC, which has been a key testing site for many emerging wave and tidal technologies will see its 26th and 27th devices installed this year and it is looking to expand and add hydrogen production facilities to help capture more of the energy it could produce.

David Collier, project lead engineer on MeyGen. Photo from Tim Winterburn / HIE

While two wave energy firms (Aquamarine Power and Pelamis, both based in Edinburgh) failed in the recent past, Wave Energy Scotland, a publicly funded organization, was created to continue wave energy development. It has now been running over 18 months and recently closed a third stage competitive tender for developers. Some £2.25 million (US$2.75 million) for eight separate projects was allocated. In addition, four companies have been selected for a second stage of power take off systems development with £6.25 million ($7.64 million) funding awarded.

Nascent nacelles

But, many point to the industry’s still nascent stage of development, compared to that of wind, which had an incremental growth curve.

Ronnie Quinn, general manager of the Scotland portfolio at The Crown Estate, which is currently being devolved to the Scottish parliament, says early targets for marine energy were missed.

“There had been an aim for 100MW by 2020,” he told the Marine Conference. “If that had been on target, the first (arrays) should have been developed in 2014. The pace of development in Pentland or Orkney has not been in line with expectations and on the way we have seen the loss of flagship companies [Pelamis and Aquamarine Power].”

Top: Ronnie Quinn, general manager of the Scotland portfolio at the Crown Estate. Bottom: Atlantis’ CEO Tim Cornelius. Photos from Tim Winterburn / HIE

Offshore wind is a good example of how marine energy can evolve – and the time scale it could take, Quinn says. At the end of 2002, the two-turbine Blyth turbine was completed offshore northeast England supplying 4MW, he says. Then, in 2004, Robin Rigg, Scotland’s first offshore wind farm, was built, achieving 90MW capacity. Now the Beatrice wind farm is being developed, with offshore construction starting next year. The 588MW farm, also off Scotland, is due be operational in 2019.

Cornelius says the only reason the MeyGen project has survived is thanks to support from the supply chain – “people working together.” As has been happening in offshore wind, contractors are becoming investors in projects. Global Energy Group at Nigg, in the Scottish Highlands and Belgium’s DEME Group have invested in MeyGen and also work on it.

Reducing cost

Reducing cost is a big concern for the industry. Cornelius says now is a good time to make the most of reduced rates caused by the low oil price, however.

While turbines could be supplied at half the cost out of Asia, the firm wants to keep production in Europe. But this will be a challenge. “There are currently not enough turbine suppliers for our needs. We are hopefully placing orders for 50 turbines in the next short while. But, we don’t have capacity. It is a challenge to produce maybe eight systems a year,” Cornelius says.

On Meygen, costs could be saved by refining the technique used to drill the onshore to offshore boreholes for running the power export cables, Cornelius says. Costs will also come down due to the larger project size.

David Collier, project lead engineer on MeyGen, says it’s clear some of the costs currently being encountered are a function of this being a pre-commercial project, including building turbines on an individual basis. “Most of the supply chain had never heard about marine energy, it took a long time to warm them up and we were still in a world where they didn’t know what we wanted them to do and, in fairness, we weren’t sure what we wanted them to do. We were designing and building everything from scratch. There are a lot of learnings we don’t have to pay for again.”

Indeed, for the contractors, it has been a learning curve. Richard Parkinson, of James Fisher Marine Services (JFMS), has spent nine years working in renewables, but had spent 25 years in the subsea and offshore sector before that.

“Tidal is the most challenging,” he told the Marine Conference. JFMS has been working on Meygen, alongside about 60% of other marine energy projects on the go. “The big challenge at MeyGen is the sheer aggressiveness of the site, especially in flood tides, and the small windows we have got to operate in,” he says. “We are working with DP (dynamic positioning) vessels and pushing them to the limit.” Timing is crucial in these environments, he says.

Unsurprisingly, similar conditions have been experienced at other sites. JFMS worked on the Sabella tidal turbine project, in the Fromveur Strait, offshore France, this summer. While not as bad as Meygen, it was an aggressive site. Previous installation work had resulted in damaged cables, Parkinson says. JFMS was brought in to take the devices out, reinstall cables and then reinstall devices. Cables were also damaged on Tidal Energy Ltd.’s project offshore Wales.

“A lot of developers overlooked challenges in installation, and a lot are not here anymore, and I think that’s why,” he says.

“Going forward, we are very aware that conventional techniques won’t work. We need to think of this as a new industry.”

Parkinson points to offshore wind and how specialist vessels have been developed. James Fisher Group bought Mojo Maritime, including its Hi Flo 4, twin-hull DP offshore construction vessel, last year. JFMS is also developing a high performance remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to work in 5 knots with IKM. “It means we can work through a spring tide,” Parkinson says. “At the moment, if the ROV goes down for five minutes, the pilot will freak out. Cable stability, wet mate connectors, subsea drills for piling are also being worked on,” he says.

Plodding policy

Antritz’s turbines at AtlantisResources’ official MeyGen launch event in September. Photo from Atlantis.

But, it’s not all about the technology or how it’s installed and maintained. Jenny Hogan, director of policy, Scottish Renewables, says projects are in jeopardy without a viable route to a viable market.

“Projects going in the water over coming months urgently need clarity on support,” she told the conference, including a minimum price for contracts for difference, a funding mechanism to bridge the cost of producing energy using renewable energy, compared to the market price.

Access to the grid (into which developers would supply their electricity) is also a challenge, Quinn says. It was designed for power to be generated close to large population centers, not off remote Scottish islands. The National Grid, which controls power distribution, isn’t likely to invest speculatively or quickly, he says, creating a chicken and egg situation.

A move to make project consenting easier, by streamlining the process, has also been held up by a recent court decision, Quinn says.

And, then there’s Brexit. Marine energy firms, including Atlantis have had significant support from the European Union (EU). While he disagrees with Britain’s departure from the EU, Cornelius says that it’s had a positive impact in so far as it has made everyone very focused about funding. The downside has been a weaker pound, limiting buying power. There’s also general uncertainty. “There’s a lot of water to travel under this bridge,” he says.

Diversifying

Perhaps because of its challenges, in finding routes to market, companies are working with other users of the sea. Albatern, a wave energy developer, for example, is working with a fish farm of the island of Muck, providing power, and EMEC is working to convert the excess power it can’t export into hydrogen to power vehicles and potentially even ferries. At MeyGen, the grid connection will incorporate an onshore wind farm, which will help smooth out the power supply from the, while predictable and regular, changing tidal energy output.

Investor confidence

Andrew Scott, CEO Scotrenewables.
Photo from Tim Winterburn / HIE

Meanwhile MeyGen’s progress is anticipated to help improve the investment market, showing that there’s a viable product in which to invest. “We are at the cusp of transition from research and development to commercialization,” Cornelius says. While that commercialization “means getting boring,” it also means bringing low price debt into the market.

“[That’s more of an] amazing achievement compared to anything technical we have done,” Cornelius says. “The predictable nature of our generation is just what pension funds want to see.” This will help make phase 1c completely self-funded, he adds.

A happy ending

“The potential is still there, it hasn’t gone away,” Quinn says. “The resources are there and the skills are there, but we need to heed the challenges.”