Describing the power of the tides to someone that has never witnessed them is like trying to describe a particular colour to someone with limited sight. One is forced to resort to clumsy comparisons.
Imagine the Clyde running three or four times faster than you have ever seen it, as deep as the buildings around it and 10 times wider. Imagine it runs like this for six hours and then after a brief pause all the water rushes back in.
Imagine the power embedded in this never-ending torrent of water. Now, imagine a machine that could harness that power.
Well you don’t have to imagine it: Scottish companies have done it and are harvesting energy sustainably from the tides in Scottish waters right now. Companies like Nova Innovation in Shetland, Orbital Marine Power in Orkney, and SIMEC Atlantis in Caithness have deployed machines to tap into the nation’s natural resources. Other companies from abroad, including Spanish-based Magallanes, are also demonstrating tidal energy technologies in Scotland creating a hive of activity, and more importantly, jobs.
The waters around Scotland’s northern and western coasts contain gigawatts of energy and the race to harness this rhythmic and unending flow of energy is well and truly on. In fact the race has been going for some time and the technology we see in the water today had its genesis at the turn of the century. However limited and fragmented support has created a marathon rather than a sprint so we’re only just now seeing the sector move from prototype demonstration to array deployments.
Be under no illusion though. Tidal energy is here and will be in Scottish waters for the rest of your lifetime and beyond. The question is “does Scotland want to take tidal energy to its heart and make it ‘ours’?”
The industry stands on the cusp of dramatic change. The companies listed above, and others, have developed equipment that works and now need the opportunity to build and install more machines. To varying degrees they are moving through the development phases and towards making commercial products; Orbital Marine Power’s O2 is the most powerful tidal turbine in the world and they are looking for sales to work out where to scale up their operations.
READ MORE SCOTLAND’S FUTURE
These companies are based in Scotland but they don’t have to be. Like all the companies in the sector they must have a worldwide perspective and other countries with tides are looking out to sea and imagining new industries off their coasts. At the moment they know Scotland is the leading nation, but they would dearly like to reverse that position and see Scotland buy machines from them.
And this is the choice. Do we want to emulate our forebears and sell Scottish technology around the world or are we content to one day write the cheques to buy kit from abroad? If we want it to be “ours” then we need to keep supporting this nascent industry.
Of course, you may be asking yourself: “Haven’t I heard this before? Wasn’t I told that Scotland was a renewables powerhouse some years ago?” Yes you were. And it was true then and it is still true now. Back in the “noughties” Scotland’s potential became publicly known and there was a surge of activity and excitement. The industry started to form and Scotland’s sleeping oil and gas giant opened one eye and briefly paid attention to this upstart energy producer. Unfortunately the rhetoric of Scotland’s opportunity was barely matched by practical support and the industry was dealt spiteful and crushing blows at the end of the UK Coalition Government when support for all renewables was slashed on ideological grounds.
Luckily some turbine developers were able to cling on and keep working on their plans and we see the results of their labours in our sea today. But it could have been so much bigger, much more developed and, most importantly, contributing much more renewables into the energy mix now. But that’s what happens when ideology trumps physics!
So what has changed? Why is this going to happen now?
The main thing is that we now have a critical mass of technology in the water and working. I know that the electricity allowing me to type this in Orkney is today coming in part from the tides. We have kit we can point to and say to the doubters “Look! This works”.
And the imperative for our own non-polluting fuels is growing every day.
And because tidal energy, driven by the predictable movement of the moon and earth, fits really well with other renewables driven by sunlight and wind.
And the sleeping giant has actually woken up and smelled the CO2. With the days of oil and gas numbered, we are seeing daily announcements of previously solid O&G companies looking for their market. We have seen how the Orcadian supply chain pivoted to support tidal and wave energy in the noughties and we now see increasing interest to transition the giants’ enormous capabilities to these new markets.
But we should not be complacent. Scotland will not build a thriving home and export market for a new technology unless it really wants to. And not only want to; it is going to have to muscle up and make it happen through active support of the public sector and through intelligent investment of both commercial and public money.
Of course, we don’t have to. We could sit back and let others do all the hard work and then bemoaningly watch them reap the benefits. After all we have done this before. Several times!
Here in Scotland we have a lot of wind turbines; none of them are Scottish despite James Blyth first generating electricity from wind in Marykirk in 1887. “The Hydro” put up the UK’s first grid connected aerogenerator here in Orkney in the ‘50s and Cecil Parkinson, former energy minister, opened the UK’s “game changing” monster (for its time) 3 MW wind turbine in 1987 –100 years after Blyth’s demonstration – before the same government killed the programme shortly after. What we now see across the Scottish landscape are machines that have been designed and manufactured overseas. We receive the harvested energy but we pay others for their intellectual efforts and we employ people overseas to construct them.
Through inept policy we allowed that industry to be lost. It wasn’t even taken from us, we just lost interest and failed to grasp the opportunity and “own it”.
So when I show the Orbital turbine to policy makers and decision makers in Orkney I remind them that this brilliant machine was conceived in Orkney, designed in Orkney and Edinburgh, built in Dundee with Liberty Steel and installed using Orcadian contractors.
This is what a Scottish industrial success looks like.
This is what we have right now.
We don’t need to imagine success; we can touch it. We now need to support it.
Neil Kermode is Managing Director at the European Marine Energy Centre.