EMEC Supports MHK Technologies on Pathway to Commercialization

With significant technology research and pre-commercialization work ongoing in the marine and hydrokinetic energy industry, what will it take to get from here to full commercialization? The European Marine Energy Centre is involved in the answer to this question.

By Lisa MacKenzie and Dave Flanagan

Established in 2003, the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Scotland is a marine and hydrokinetic (MHK) energy testing facility supporting MHK technology on the road to commercialization.

“In terms of the potential to produce epic quantities of power from wave and tide, we have shown we are on the right track,” says Neil Kermode, EMEC managing director. “We have proven you can turn seawater into electricity and we [the MHK industry] have started to do that with higher degrees of reliability.”

As the man in charge of the Orkney Islands-based EMEC, you would expect Kermode to be buoyant about the sector’s progress towards commercialization. But while he might be evangelical about the global potential of MHK, Kermode’s also pragmatic when it comes to assessing the challenges that remain for developers of wave and tidal energy technologies.

“There is still work to be done in terms of winning over a wider audience, beyond the marine energy sector itself,” he says. “I think that many people are still fixated on the issue of pricing, whereas they should be concerned about the fact we have had the highest temperature winter on record, with global CO2 concentrations now above 400 parts per million.

“We are also seeing the collapse of certain eco-systems. It is all pretty catastrophic, but I think many people do not really seem to care. I think if people did value the air we breathe and the water we drink, then I’m quite sure marine energy would be a much more attractive option than burning fossil fuels. We cannot just keep setting light to stuff within a confined space and ignoring the consequences.”

Prior to being deployed, the Scotrenewables SR2000, foreground, and SME PLATO devices are pictured at Hatston Pier in Orkney in June 2016. (Photo: Colin Keldie, courtesy of EMEC)
Prior to being deployed, the Scotrenewables SR2000, foreground, and SME PLATO devices are pictured at Hatston Pier in Orkney in June 2016. (Photo: Colin Keldie, courtesy of EMEC)

Environmental arguments aside, the uncompromising nature of the ocean environment meant from the outset that progress toward the goal of harnessing MHK energy’s massive potential as a power source was certainly never going to be smooth – or cheap.

Early sectoral interest around 2010 from utilities and major investors stalled four years or so later as the scale of the technical challenges and inherent costs of MHK became more apparent. In addition, a couple of high profile companies going into administration (i.e., Pelamis Wave Power), served as fuel for marine energy sceptics.

Developers have therefore had to weather the storms – literally and metaphorically – with some opting to go back to the drawing board. According to Kermode, there is now a much greater degree of technical humility within the industry.

“Marine energy is certainly becoming increasingly diverse, both in terms of scale and approach to the task in hand,” he says. “Many developers are now exploring smaller-scale solutions, individually tailored to particular site conditions or local grid constraints, and there is a growing realization that this is no one size fits all in terms of harnessing the ocean’s power.”

At the same time, Kermode’s convinced the costs associated with MHK energy will continue to decrease as developers refine devices and operational procedures. With comparatively few machines in the water there remain a range of opinions as to how far the present costs will be driven down. Most projects are presently experimental and the multi-million-dollar project costs are clearly not representative of scale production that will be achieved. Some technology developers believe they are within striking distance of the prices being bid for offshore wind. Most believe that price parity will take several years to accomplish.

“We know the cost of producing energy will come down as we get more efficient at doing it,” he says. “Developers will only get good at doing it through constant practice and repetition, and it’s encouraging to see some of the early mover companies starting to build multiple machines. We’re now going to see an increase in the rate of innovation taking place because there is more and more activity upon which to innovate. In due course that innovation leads to a degree of consolidation and, in turn, marketable products that will attract confident investment.

“The fact we are now seeing a much greater degree of repeated activity is a sign we are at the start of that commercialization journey.”

Orkney test center

The Orkney test center has been firmly in the vanguard of the global ocean power revolution since it was established in 2003. Since then, EMEC has supported the deployment of 27 marine energy devices from 17 different clients.

There is no doubt the pace of progress within the MHK sector is picking up, with a remarkable variety of projects under way, particularly within the tidal sector.

For example, at the larger end of the scale sits the development of Atlantis Resources’ MeyGen tidal array in the Pentland Firth, a channel between the Scottish mainland and the Orkney Islands.

The types of turbines being deployed at MeyGen were initially tested at EMEC, with Atlantis planning to install 269 devices – with total capacity of 398 MW – in the Pentland Firth’s turbulent waters by 2020. The first device was installed in 2016 and was generating to the grid at full power by the year’s end.

Another example is Scotrenewables Tidal Power Ltd., which is testing its commercial scale, 2 MW SR2000 – the world’s largest floating turbine – at EMEC’s Fall of Warness tidal test site. The firm has also secured a European Commission Horizon 2020 grant of €10 million (US$10.63 million) for its Floating Tidal Energy Commercialization (FloTEC) project, which will build on the information gleaned from testing the SR2000 to develop a mark two prototype of the SR2000 technology. There will be a significant focus on reducing the levelized cost of energy at every stage of the design, build and demonstration of the SR2000-m2.

Meanwhile, Dublin-based OpenHydro – the first developer to use EMEC’s Fall of Warness test site and the first to deliver electricity from a tidal device to the UK national grid – has recently deployed two turbines in Brittany, France, and another two in Nova Scotia, Canada, while continuing to test a smaller scale 6-meter version of its Open Centre turbine at EMEC.

Pictured here mounted on its subsea base, the top of the 16-meter-diameter, 2-MW OpenHydro Open Centre turbine is designed to sit 20 to 25 meters above the seabed. (Photo courtesy Mike Brookes-Roper)
OpenHydro’s 6-meter-diameter, 250 kW, open center turbine is in its test rig. The rig is for testing purposes only, enabling the turbine to be lowered and raised in and out of the water at EMEC’s tidal test site. When deployed elsewhere, a seabed gravity foundation is used.
 (Photo courtesy Mike Brookes-Roper)

Isle of Wight-based tidal developer Sustainable Marine Energy is also close to deploying its PLAT-O tidal energy platform at the Fall of Warness test site after successfully installing four subsea rock anchors by robot in the site’s challenging tidal flows.

Dutch tidal developer Tocardo is one of the most recent companies to secure a berth at EMEC and is set to demonstrate a 20-year pre-commercial array at the Fall of Warness site. Tocardo plans to install eight T2 turbines across two of Tocardo’s semi-submersible U-shaped floating platforms, with work scheduled to begin in 2017.

Although developments within the tidal sector are currently capturing the headlines, EMEC remains fully committed to supporting the wave energy sector as well. Confidence seems to be returning to the sector, with several innovative smaller scale projects coming to fruition.

For example, Flemish developer Laminaria has signed up to test its wave energy converter (WEC) at EMEC’s Billia Croo wave test site where it will undergo performance testing in 2017. To that end, Laminaria have also launched the OCEANERA-NET funded LAMWEC project which includes EMEC, Innosea, Ghent University and TTI Testing to help Laminaria develop and test a 200-kW WEC. A key focus of the project will be on the WEC’s survivability in extreme storm conditions, with emphasis on the design and build of Laminaria’s power take-off and storm protection system, new anchor design suitable for a range of seabed configurations, and the development of a mooring and pulley system that will support the aforementioned components.

Meanwhile, Swedish wave energy developer CorPower Ocean is preparing to test a half-scale prototype WEC at EMEC’s test site in Scapa Flow in 2017 following dry rig testing of the system in Stockholm. CorPower have a few related projects on the go, including WaveBoost – a three-year Horizon 2020 funded innovation programme targeting significant improvements in the reliability and performance of WECs by using pneumatic components in combination with advanced control technology. The efforts are expected to increase energy production, reduce CAPEX and improve grid integration of wave energy farms, resulting in a reduction in the cost of energy of up to 30%.

Alleviating testing costs

It is undeniable that the cost of pre-commercial demonstration of full-scale ocean energy technology is high – EMEC estimate that it costs developers around £30 million (US$32.2 million) to progress a technology from concept stage to getting just one prototype into the water. Before committing, investors want to be certain the technology has been proven to work in actual ocean conditions. This results in the so-called valley-of-death phenomenon and often prevents MHK products from reaching the market.

In this vein, EMEC recently launched the €11 million (US$11.7 million) FORESEA (Funding Ocean Renewable Energy through Strategic European Action) project, which brings together Europe’s leading ocean energy test facilities – EMEC (UK); SmartBay (Ireland); SEM-REV (France); and the Tidal Testing Centre (Netherlands) – to support the demonstration of tidal, wave and offshore wind energy technologies in real sea conditions.

FORESEA will offer a series of funding and business development support packages to ocean energy technology developers at technology readiness level (TRL) 5+ (i.e., those looking to test subsystems or full-scale systems in a real sea environment) to help lever the further investment needed to take their products to market. Funded by the Interreg North-West Europe program, the first call was launched in July 2016 and saw 10 ocean energy developers offered support – eight of which are due to test at EMEC – with the second call for support packages launched in November 2016.

The activity that has taken place around EMEC’s sites can serve as a case study for the economic benefits of developing this burgeoning sector further. EMEC employs 22 people across a wide range of disciplines, including operations and maintenance, data handling and project management. In addition, the Orkney marine energy supply chain supports about 230 jobs in the islands covering everything from environmental consultancy, marine operations, and engineering. Given their unprecedented experience in the sector, these local companies are increasingly finding their input sought on marine energy projects worldwide (e.g., a local consultancy – Aquatera Ltd. – has just publicized a new project in which they are developing a marine energy roadmap for Peru).

Major investment in islands infrastructure has also followed EMEC’s formation, with £22 million (US$23.4 million) of public sector cash used to create new renewables focused harbor facilities at Hatston, near Kirkwall, Lyness on the Island of Hoy and at Copland’s Dock in Stromness.

A 160 meter-long extension was added to Haston Pier in Hatston Quay, Kirkwall, Orkney, in 2013, extending it from 225 meters to 385 meters  -  almost one-quarter mile. The pier accommodates Scotland’s longest commercial deep-water berth. (Photo courtesy K4 Graphics)
A 160 meter-long extension was added to Haston Pier in Hatston Quay, Kirkwall, Orkney, in 2013, extending it from 225 meters to 385 meters – almost one-quarter mile. The pier accommodates Scotland’s longest commercial deep-water berth. (Photo courtesy K4 Graphics)

The financial case for the creation of EMEC is also proving well founded, with a recent study by Highlands and Islands Enterprise revealing the center’s activities have helped generate almost £250 million (US$266 million) for the UK economy, with 3,801 full-time equivalent (FTE) job years created so far. This equates to 380 permanent FTE positions in the UK economy over the course of 10 years.

To remain flexible and responsive to the needs of both the wave and tidal sector, EMEC is continually looking at ways it can help developers reduce time, cost and risk in testing programs. The center is accredited by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service to provide internationally recognized performance assessment and technology verification, providing developers with independently verified reports – vital for proving claims and increasing investor confidence.

EMEC’s research and development program has encompassed everything from studies into biofouling and tests of coatings for use in harsh oceanic environments, to projects exploring cabling solutions for tidal arrays and the development of methodologies to improve reliability in marine energy converters.

Although there is much to be positive about for Kermode and the marine energy industry, the EMEC boss remains measured and pragmatic.

“I think we should always be vigilant about becoming complacent and thinking we’ve got this covered,” he warns. “The history of technology is littered with occasions when people stopped innovating or stopped paying attention, and the number of times that technologies have moved overseas or stalled for a generation are legion. We need to guard against that.”

“We must not kid ourselves that this needs no more money; it does. And it needs more experience and it needs more time at sea. Similar to any new technology, development requires vision and energetic support to ride through the inevitable problems that lie ahead. However, MHK has an approval rating of 79% among the British public so we have the support behind us.

“We have done some of the conceptually hard stuff; we have produced electricity from the sea safely and without discernable environmental impact. The next hard task is to do it more quickly, reliably and consistently at more and more locations; by doing it again and again we will learn how to do it better and therefore cheaper.

“So the task at hand is just to do it again and again and again. We need the space to do that, as well as the money and the political will. But with those approval ratings and our recent success, what’s stopping us?”

According to Kermode, there is also a need for the marine energy industry to “keep banging on doors” to hammer home the message that it offers a viable, cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels. “We have never seen such unprecedented pressure on the environment,” he concludes. “The challenge we face is to make sure we have got secure and affordable supplies of energy, and jobs available within a low carbon environment. Marine energy technologies exactly fit with all those objectives, so why would we not push on as hard as we possibly can?

“People have to recognize that this is not just innovation. It is in fact an aid to our planetary survival.”

Lisa MacKenzie is marketing and communications officer for the European Marine Energy Center. Dave Flanagan is a journalist reporting for EMEC.

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