Wave energy needs radical innovation if it is to be competitive

Paul Boughton

Tidal stream energy can have a significant role to play in the UK’s future energy system and has the potential to compete with other low carbon energy sources on cost, according to a new report published today by the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI).

However, the future for a cost competitive wave energy industry is less certain and the industry needs a fresh approach to how it extracts and converts energy from waves if costs are to come down and make it viable.

The two Insight Reports, written by Stuart Bradley, the ETI’s Offshore Renewables Strategy Manager, look at the opportunities and challenges facing the marine energy industry.

They examine the potential for exploiting tidal stream and wave energy in the UK, building on the learnings derived from ETI’s Marine technology programme and in-house ETI energy system-level analysis.

For tidal, the report concludes that the focus of further cost reduction for the tidal industry should be on developing array-scale systems, co-ordinated investment into supply chain innovation, their processes and the training of people.

Stuart Bradley, the ETI’s Offshore Renewables Strategy Manager said: “Our marine technology programme aims to help accelerate the development of the UK’s most promising marine technologies. The UK has an abundance of natural resources but they have to be harnessed in the most competitive way if they are to form a significant part of the UK’s future low carbon energy needs.

“Tidal stream energy has the potential to compete with other low carbon sources. It is reliable, predictable and can create jobs and economic benefits.

“The UK leads the world in tidal device development and our tidal energy converter work has shown that array-scale engineering is essential, but from a tidal perspective the innovation needs are known so the focus should be on putting them together rather than any reinvention.”

The sector has transitioned in recent years from small-scale prototype devices, through to full-scale demonstration and early commercial arrays are now in development.

The report highlights that more work needs to be done if wave energy is to become cost competitive in the medium term and that even with aggressive cost reduction and innovation activities, current attenuator wave energy technologies are unlikely to make a significant contribution to the UK energy system in the coming years.

Stuart Bradley adds: “Wave energy is less predictable than tidal and the costs of extracting it are significantly higher than other forms of low carbon energy, which are coming down in costs.

“Our wave energy convertor work shows that the design convergence of arrays and device systems is essential, but the industry needs a radical rethink to reconsider its approach to extracting and converting wave energy for lower cost solutions in the longer term.

“As such, we welcome the introduction of parties such as Wave Energy Scotland, who will bring a fresh approach to the market, focusing on learning from collaboration and a rethink on the design of conversion and extraction technology.”

The ETI recently published a report which showed the UK can implement an affordable transition to a low carbon energy system by 2050 but decisions taken in the next decade will be critical and it is important to develop, commercialise and integrate technologies and solutions that are already known, but underdeveloped.

The ETI/UK Energy Research Centre Roadmap, published in October 2010, provides a view on the key technology and deployment issues facing the UK marine energy sector, how these things should be prioritised and technology cost – and performance targets to 2050. The Roadmap was updated in 2014 to identify and prioritise the key technology and deployment issues faced by the marine renewable energy sector in the UK.