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Marine Energy: Harvesting Power from Nature

Marine Energy: Wave Power for Virginia? Scotland Shows the Way!

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Colin Keldie courtesy EMEC
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With so much coastal property, this state could be harvesting the energy of waves, currents and tides to power homes and offices, factories and electric cars.  But Virginia is far from the day when that might happen. 

The Orkney Accordion and Fiddle Club meets weekly to celebrate old fashioned Scottish music and a growing number of enthusiasts on this island between the North Sea and the Atlantic.  73-year-old Innes Wylie is delighted by the newcomers.

“I used to play in pipe bands back in the 60’s, and if you got 9 pipers, you were doing well.  Now, they can probably 24 or 25.”

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One reason for this growing population is a booming new industry – harvesting power from nature.  As many as 350 people on Orkney now work with green energy technologies – a development that doesn’t surprise Wylie.

“I think it’s an excellent idea, because we’ve got plenty of wind and plenty of waves!”

In fact, he’s got a couple of wind turbines on his 175-acre farm, and he may someday benefit from research underway nearby – at the European Marine Energy Center or EMEC.  Lisa MacKenzie speaks for the non-profit laboratory.

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Lisa Mackenzie, EMEC

“The purpose of EMEC is to get devices into real sea conditions and get them tested in the really challenging saltwater conditions that we’ve got here in Orkney.  As well as generating electricity, they’re testing how to install devices, how they survive in really harsh conditions.”

Harsh indeed.  The center’s managing director, Neil Kermode, says waves along the western coast average six to nine feet, but in stormy weather, they can swell to sixty feet.

“To build a piece of machinery that’s capable of withstanding that is a big ask, but you’ve also got to make them so that they are flexible enough to react to the waves.  You want these machines to harvest this energy, so trying to make something that is flexible, durable, cost-effective and works is quite a big technical ask.”

The tides here are also powerful, rushing in and out at about seven miles an hour, and a local company, Scotrenewbles, is determined to take advantage of that.

“We’ve got the tides of the North Sea meeting the tides of the Atlantic Ocean, and as the tides are filtered through these very narrow channels between the islands, the currents pick up, and I think here really, the north of France and the Bay of Fundy have the best tidal resource in the world. ”

But engineer James Murray says it can be difficult and expensive to install turbines.  A special boat and crane are needed to plant some generators in the ocean floor, and that costs $230,000 a day.  So the company devised tidal turbines that can be towed using almost any boat.

“Because the turbine is floating, we can use much smaller vessels and essentially tow the floating turbine out to sea and onto site. Retractable rotors are lowered, and the brakes released and the turbines can be generating within the space of about half an hour, so it’s quite a different approach.”

Scotrenewables has been working on its device – which looks like a bright yellow submarine -- for more than a decade with support from a government hoping to see economic impact well beyond Orkney.

“It’s really good to be able to provide high skilled jobs here in this island community.  We’re also putting the superstructure together in Northern Ireland at the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the Titanic was built, and hopefully we’ll have better luck than the Titanic.   The steel work is coming from Wales, and we’ve got the blades coming from the South of England, so really drawing on all the best expertise in the United Kingdom.”

Orkney may be one of the best sites in the world for generating marine energy, but even here there are obstacles.  We’ll look at what’s holding wave and tidal power back in our next report.

Sandy Hausman reported from Europe with the support of an Energy and Climate Media Fellowship from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

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