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What can we learn from the last ten years? - INORE

INOREan Alexandra Price attended the INORE @ ICOE workshop held in February to celebrate the psuedo-ten year anniversary of INORE. Ally is an experienced researcher and blogger for ocean energy with her dedicated blog Wave Power Conundrums.  Ally captured the INORE @ ICOE event as we discussed how ocean energy has progressed in the last ten years, what we have learned and what the future looks like.

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INORE hosted a lively panel-session seminar associated with the ICOE event, chaired by Adrian de Andres. The INORE Chair, Samantha Quinn, announced INORE’s new blog, and with a very unsubtle gawk in my direction, called for volunteers to write posts. The panel members were Old Inoreans Angus Vantoch-Wood (Carbon Trust),  Sarah Caraher (Nova Innovation), Davide Magagna(EU Commission), Tom McCombes (Nautricity), and myself, now also acting as session reporter. Adrian kicked the session off with the rather provocative question ‘What has the marine energy industry done wrong? Why don’t we have commercial devices yet?

Systemic problems

Adrian seemed to think I might have some thoughts on this matter, so I was invited to respond first. I addressed the underlying suggestion that the blame for the lack of commercial devices lay with the industry, by surmising that no one in industry had in fact done anything ‘wrong’, because everyone had done what was ‘right’ given the goals of their organisations. Instead I suggested the problem was systemic, arising from the mismatch between the priorities of various stakeholders (including investors and policy makers). This lead to over-promise, and a sort of arms race to get increasingly bigger prototypes installed. There was a disconnect within development companies, as the people making the promises were not those who had to keep them, so development effort was not effectively applied.

There was broad consensus among the panel and audience that the root of the problems were systemic.

Cash with strings attached

Pelamis P2 wave energy device on test at EMEC site, Billia Croo, Orkney, Scotland

Pelamis P2 wave energy device on test at EMEC site, Billia Croo, Orkney, Scotland. Courtesy of Simon Waldman.

Angus pointed out that everything is incentivised by ‘what the cash wants’. Prior to WES (Wave Energy Scotland), tapping into public funding required private investment, and this came with strings attached. There was the expectation that the second prototype would work perfectly.

Sarah confirmed that there was a big pressure to deliver. As everything had to be big, the burn rate (particularly staff costs) was big, and there was the constant threat of running out of money. Tom added that there was pressure to get too complicated too soon.

Good money after bad

Tom discussed design lock-in, saying that ‘you end up committing yourself, and pressing ahead’. This is another source of ineffective development, as good money is thrown after bad.

No convergence and learning

Davide noted that wave energy wasn’t experiencing the design convergence seen in the early days of wind, and so technology learning is not being accumulated. Tom pointed out that if we want convergence we will have to allow people to work on similar concepts. He pointed to the IP from two defunct companies, Pelamis and Aquamarine, which is not available for general use.

Subterfuge and stratagem

The underlying problem, as outlined by Davide, was the disconnect between what the technology can achieve [at this stage in the development] and what we want it to achieve. Simon Waldman (Heriot-Watt University) noted that our expectations had resulted in optimism. He quoted 2010 reports that predicted 1GW of installed wave and tidal capacity by 2020. Sarah noted that this resulted in the technology being sold as more ready than it was. Angus described this very colourfully as ‘parrot fish’, where developers were required to ‘show different colours on each side’.

Fundamentals of cost-effectiveness

Cameron McNatt (Mocean Energy) thought there was not enough discussion of the physics of wave power. He suggested looking at the wave radiation and the working surface. Several people called for a fresh look at the economics of marine energy. Sarah said ‘we need to stop and address whether we can compete’. Tim Mundon (Oscilla Power) agreed that design for cost competitiveness was needed. He called for an ‘apple’ [as in Mac or iphone] wave energy device to lead the way.

Solutions

The last topic that Adrian introduced was what can be learnt from experience so far, and what this spells for the future of marine energy. My suggestion followed on from the discussion of designing for cost-effectiveness: the ‘revenue to costs ratio’ must inform design. So we need to reduce extreme loads (e.g. experienced during storms) with respect to the mean loads experienced during generation. Hence rated power and storm operation, and control during these modes, need to be designed in from the beginning.

Solutions to the systemic problems

Much of the discussion addressed the systemic problems. Tim summarised this rather succinctly as ‘We need a route to competitive levelised cost of energy at a time scale attractive to investment.’ Angus pointed to innovation studies that showed it is not necessarily the best technology that wins. So, rather than focussing on designing the perfect ‘electric kelp’, we need to consider a stepping stone arrangement.

New markets

There was much discussion of the target markets for a stepping stone strategy. Cameron believed we should be targeting markets such as fish-farms and islands rather than utilities. Tim mentioned that Resolute Marine had a few devices in remote locations in Alaska. Adrian described a student study that had considered luxury hotels in places like Bora Bora. Angus thought different business models such as community ownership should be explored.

Implementation

There were a couple of suggestions of how stepping stone technologies might be implemented differently. Michele Martini (University of Cantabria) suggested starting [the first technology step] from the shore. Tom’s earlier comments on the difficulty of grid connection suggested solutions that avoided this requirement.

Funding

Angus discussed how WES’s funding model would ease the systemic problems previously experienced. He hoped this would act as a restart button to seed some refreshing radical innovation.  Simon thought a carbon tax would bolster marine renewables by reflecting the full costs of non-renewables. Cameron was interested in creative funding models and more open collaboration. Angus agreed that there was a lot of talk about openness, and that WES would be the litmus test for whether the marine energy community was able to work collaboratively.