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Funding competition could change tide for UK's overlooked marine energy sector

Joseph Flaig

Minesto's tidal energy technology is an underwater 'kite' turbine that moves in figures-of-eight (Credit: Minesto)
Minesto's tidal energy technology is an underwater 'kite' turbine that moves in figures-of-eight (Credit: Minesto)

Underwater ‘kite’ turbines, floating generators and other diverse tidal energy technology could find commercial success if the UK funding system is reformed to boost competition, an industry CEO has said.

Following a letter of support for wave and tidal energy from 91 members of parliament, Minesto boss Dr Martin Edlund told Professional Engineering that suggested changes could help create a thriving market. The marine sector could stand in polar opposite to wind, he said, which is overwhelmingly dominated by the three blade horizontal axis turbine.

“There is no dominant design in the tidal industry yet. If you take wind, there is a dominant design… It is not going to be tens or hundreds of concepts that will be commercialised, but I’m pretty sure it is going to be more than two or three.”

Unlike the UK’s thriving wind sector, tidal and wave technologies have not been widely deployed despite the huge scale of opportunity and technical success in trials around the country’s coast. Companies are developing many different technologies with features specialised to target specific advantages or aspects of the resource – easy maintenance or low-flow devices, for example – but they are currently deemed too expensive under Contracts for Difference (CfD) auctions, which aim to buy the cheapest energy available.

In the letter to energy minister Claire Perry, the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs suggested reforming the CfD system so marine technologies compete amongst themselves for government-backed power contracts. This policy would drive competition and reduce costs, said trade organisation RenewableUK.

Ahead of an energy white paper, which the politicians hope will include supportive policies for marine power, they also highlighted an industry proposal to offer tax rebates to businesses that pay above the market rate for tide and wave energy, known as Innovation Power Purchase Agreements.  

The MPs “have done a good job” identifying what the industry needs to succeed, said Dr Edlund. It is “essential” to commercialise multiple technologies, he said, because of the size of the market. “Competition needs to be there. It’s not a way of promoting one company or one solution, it’s about giving multiple proposals the ability to prove themselves commercially viable.”

‘Unparalleled resource’

The UK’s tidal stream industry could support 4,000 jobs and bring economic benefits worth £1.4bn by 2030, a RenewableUK announcement said. Wave technology could reportedly support 8,100 jobs and generate £4bn by 2040, with a predicted £76bn marine energy global market by 2050.

“Marine energy is an innovative, world-class industry in which the UK is a global leader,” said Conservative MP Richard Graham, author of the letter and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Marine Energy. “We have an unparalleled resource, with 50% of Europe’s tidal energy and 35% of its wave energy. It is time to grasp the opportunity in front of us, as the government has with offshore wind.”

He added: “Right now people are clamouring for more action on climate change. Marine energy provides a perfect opportunity for the government to show that it is listening.”

RenewableUK deputy chief executive Emma Pinchbeck said: “Public support for wave and tidal power hit an all-time high this week, with 82% of people backing it. We need to scale-up our renewable capacity massively right now to meet our carbon reduction targets. The industry stands ready to deliver but we need action from ministers to get our innovative, world-leading technology deployed at scale.”

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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