Opinion Articles

Choosing your history: Wave energy development in the UK

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Last week the news headlines were dominated by the Crown Estates' announcement of the winning bidders for a selection of wave and tidal energy sites in the Pentland Firth. Undoubtedly, most people would have been blissfully unaware that such an auction was even taking place. However, the stirring sight of the swelling seas around Orkney, crashing against a somewhat baffling range of marine energy devices proved an irresistible temptation for the news cameras, as we all shared in the exciting news. The recent excitement over the potential of wave energy is nothing new. More than three decades ago, in 1978, an important Government White Paper on energy saw wave as having 'major potential' and, speaking in the same year, the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board concluded that wave energy could 'supply the whole of Britain with electricity at the present rate of consumption'.

This month Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, again described the waters of the Pentland Firth as the 'Saudi Arabia' of marine power, before going on to invoke a historical precedent in order to emphasise the potential impact of this new initiative. Curiously though, he chose the example of the development of hydropower in the North of Scotland (and the role of Tom Johnston in particular) as his historical reference point. This is understandable in the sense that both hydro and marine are water-based renewable energy technologies, and both are abundant in Scotland. Not to mention the obvious political attraction for Salmond of Johnston's long association with Scottish home-rule. But there was a much better example available to the First Minister; what about the UK's publicly-funded Wave Energy Programme, which was launched with an announcement at Edinburgh University in April 1975? This was surely a much more apposite historical example of a bold government-backed renewable energy scheme for Alex Salmond to employ?

Following the first of the 1970s oil shocks in October 1973, one response of the UK Government to the crisis was to consider the potential of 'alternative sources of energy'. The Government asked Lord Rothschild's think tank - the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) - to produce a set of recommendations on energy policy. A brand new 'Department of Energy' was created at the same in recognition of the central importance of energy to the UK economy. The CPRS report sketched out the approach that would form the basis of UK energy policy through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Known widely as CoCoNuke, it recommended that UK energy policy be built on a model of conservation, coal, and nuclear. However, Rothschild's report also contained a bold statement in relation to renewable energy, 'The first stage of a full technical and economic appraisal of harnessing wave power for electricity generation should be put in hand at once.' The inclusion of this statement in the report led directly to the creation of the UK Wave Energy Programme (WEP) in April 1975. The wave programme attracted huge media attention during the 1970s, as the Government invested around £15m over a seven-year period on the development of wave energy.

The general reluctance of the First Minister, and others involved in the most recent developments of wave energy, to make any references to the 'first' UK Wave Energy Programme can perhaps be explained by a simple lack of historical knowledge. After all, we tend to quickly forget the 'failed attempts' in history; and the first wave power programme was widely judged in this way. Otherwise, the similarities between this new announcement and the first programme are too temptingly obvious. The first programme included a range of devices, which reflected the early stage of development in wave power. Three decades on, the latest announcement, once more for a range of wave energy devices explains this by pointing out that wave energy technologies 'are still being developed'. Also, in 1975 the wave programme chose 1985 - ten years on - as the target date for producing electricity. The target of the new scheme is also ten years away, in 2020. Perhaps ten years seems sufficiently far in to the future for speculative new developments?

Of course, the absence of any mention of the first wave power programme is entirely understandable. In 1985, ten years after the launch of the first wave power programme, after having invested £15m of taxpayers money on more than a dozen wave energy devices, the Government's view was unequivocal; a Department of Energy report stated 'there are no circumstances in which we foresee wave power making a significant contribution to future energy requirements.' Wave power development had failed. The reasons for this are complex, and reside mainly with the administration of the programme rather than the technology. Nevertheless, the conclusions were clear and wave R&D was largely abandoned by the UK. Fortunately for the UK other countries, notably Norway, took up wave energy technology and continued its development. In addition, UK wave pioneers like Stephen Salter at the University of Edinburgh also continued to develop wave energy devices. Indeed, the Salter team at Edinburgh spawned the Pelamis device which is perhaps the most familiar device in the new scheme.

So it appears that seven years of wave R&D and £15m of government funding have been conveniently forgotten, and the controversy, bitterness and acrimony which surrounded the closure of the first wave power programme in 1982. In the 1970s advocates of wave energy realised the potential of the resource, but were also realistic about the scale of the challenge. Significant funding was required, much more than the £15m allocated, but more importantly time was needed to allow the devices to be developed. It is to be hoped that this time around the Governments patience with renewable energy will last out.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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