Orkney marine energy R&D vital to British industrial strategy

Eileen Linklater
Eileen Linklater


In 1980, the year I was born, there were just 10MW worth of wind turbines installed worldwide. At the end of 2016, that figure had risen to 486,790MW.

When I was a child in the mid-1980s, I remember the world’s largest wind turbine being erected for testing here in Orkney at Burgar Hill. I remember waiting at the roadside to see its enormous blades be transported to the site, and standing underneath it watching in wonder as it generated electricity in one of Orkney’s windiest spots.

Now I have the privilege of witnessing the next phase of innovation in the energy sector as we see the arrival of more and more new wave and tidal technologies to EMEC’s test sites, and once again Orkney is at the forefront. As I sit here, there are five tidal machines and one wave machine in Orkney, with many more on the way to prove what is achievable in some of the most challenging sea conditions around.

It is sometimes difficult to grasp the opportunities presented by technological innovations as they develop, but for me, marine renewable energy is a no-brainer. A clean, sustainable source of energy, from our own coastline which can contribute to tackling climate change and generate real local economic impacts.

We’ve been doing this testing at EMEC for a while (14 years), and have seen 30 different devices from 19 different companies from nine different countries, so it’s easy to take for granted the activity and impact the research work is having.

It’s also difficult to make sure everyone is aware of what we’re doing here and why. However, the recent political change we’ve seen, and prospect of continued change, makes it really important to remind everyone what’s at stake.

As such we’d like to share our recent response to the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy consultation which we hope all political parties and candidates would take some time to digest, to make sure we can capture the benefits of marine renewable energy.

EMEC was established to progress a bold vision by UK Government back at the turn of the millennium: a research centre that would ensure the UK build an energy industry around its enviable wave and tidal resources, by attracting R&D and innovation. The £36 milliion invested in building EMEC has since delivered the UK a GVA of almost £250 million.

Marine energy is already supporting many of the pillars in the Industrial Strategy:

Developing Skills: In Orkney, local supply chain companies have formed via diversification from fishing and diving; the potential for transferable skills from offshore engineering in the North Sea to renewables is huge as the oil and gas sector seek to improve their own efficiencies and sustainability.

Upgrading Infrastructure: Due to the grid infrastructure investment not keeping up with demand, it was necessary for EMEC to explore energy storage solutions. The arrival of the British built ITM Power electrolyser in Orkney this month is the start of an exciting new chapter of EMEC providing energy storage demonstration, and hydrogen production and trading.

Supporting Businesses to start and grow: Scotrenewables now has the world’s largest tidal turbine at sea and generating. An Orkney company, they have secured significant inward investment from Norway and France to achieve this.

Encouraging trade and inward investment: The European Commission is acutely aware of the industrial opportunities presented by marine energy, and as such are supporting a range of innovation projects via Horizon 2020 and other R&D funding mechanisms.

EMEC is a partner in 13 live projects, with a total value of €64,935,238, of which €28,711,231 was received by UK companies. The projects have attracted €21,899,606 of private funds.

Cultivating world-leading sectors: EMEC has exported its knowledge to 18 countries since it was established in 2003. In 2016 its consultants provided expertise to Belgium, China, Ireland, Peru, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden and the USA.

Driving growth across the whole country: Orkney is the only remote rural area in Scotland which has seen a population increase. The marine energy sector is providing a growing source of relatively highly paid jobs. There are more than 40 businesses in Orkney involved in renewables employing around 250 people operating locally, nationally and internationally.

This is what we have, the opportunities are here for the taking, however the transition to commercialisation that follows innovation has been notoriously weak in the UK in recent decades.

The decommissioning of the wind turbine on Burgar Hill I described earlier heralded the end of wind R&D in this country, whilst other nations enthusiastically bought the innovations and turned them into a huge global market of which they still hold a dominant share.

Without the right environment to enable innovative businesses to flourish there is no point in spending money on R&D.

We must not lose our present industry lead by failing to support real sea testing. EMEC has shown that this is where ‘learning by doing’ leads to cost reductions and real performance data, however, importantly it also provides real, useful jobs, and the prospect of a new clean energy source, from our own shorelines.

Eileen Linklater is EMEC Commercial Manager

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