Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 45 - 59)




  45. Professor Salter, Mr Thorpe, I saw you both sitting in the so-called public gallery during the course of that previous witness session. Welcome to the Select Committee this afternoon, and thank you for coming to give us assistance in our inquiry. Professor Salter, I am not sure that we have met in the past, but, years ago, when I was Chairman of the Energy Select Committee, I certainly studied your work at that time. I have a feeling we did meet, briefly, on one occasion.

  (Professor Salter) Yes.

  46. But I never had the opportunity to come to your University and see your work; but, certainly, we were well aware of it, and, from questioning you this afternoon, or from you volunteering information, we hope we can find out what we learned from those early pioneering days. Could I perhaps just ask you, starting with Professor Salter, if you would, just very briefly, because we have only three-quarters of an hour, introduce yourselves to us, tell us your present position and your interest in wave and tidal energy?
  (Professor Salter) At present, I am a Professor of Engineering Design at Edinburgh University, I am interested in a mixture of mechanical and electronic things. I have been working on wave energy since 1973, two weeks before the Yom Kippur war. It was a good time to start. Over that time, my work on wave energy has been supported properly for about seven years. For the rest of the time we have been managing to keep things going with other activities. Now there is, apparently, a resumption of interest, which is very welcome.

  47. How well funded are you?
  (Professor Salter) We have had either far too much or far too little money, and, at the moment, I think we are edging up towards having more than we could reasonably, sensibly use; it is a funny feeling, and it may not last very long, because of a problem, which I mentioned in my evidence, about test tanks.

  48. Mr Thorpe, welcome. Would you like to introduce yourself, as well, please? I notice that AEA is mentioned here, I am not sure if you are still an employee of them, and, if you are, will you let us know whether you are representing AEA or representing yourself?
  (Mr Thorpe) Thank you, Mr Chairman. I am a Principal Consultant with AEA Technology, which is the privatised part of what used to be the UK Atomic Energy Authority. I am here making a presentation on behalf of myself. AEA Technology has been asked to make a presentation through the DTI's submission to this Committee.

  49. So what we hear today will be your views. AEA know you are here, I am sure they do?
  (Mr Thorpe) Yes, they do.

  50. But the views you will give will be your views?
  (Mr Thorpe) That is correct.

  51. Thank you very much indeed. Staying with you then, Mr Thorpe, what do you think the future is of wave and tidal energy in this country, and if you say the future is bright then what have we got to do to ensure that we achieve that bright future?
  (Mr Thorpe) The future, at this moment, the best I could say, is uncertain. We have two companies in this country, or rather, more exactly, in Scotland, who are developing wave energy devices, and they are finding it extremely tough-going. Myself, I work with a range of companies throughout the world, Australia, USA, Ireland; they seem to have much more support, both politically and financially, in developing their devices. At this moment, it looks as though they are the ones who are going to succeed: USA, Australia, the Netherlands and Ireland.

  52. Thank you very much indeed. Turning to Professor Salter, it seems appropriate that I should ask him this question. Why, Professor Salter, do you think our previous attempts, as long ago as the Yom Kippur war you referred to, which is very nearly 30 years ago now, which seemed to be pretty determined at the time and forced upon us by circumstances, why did they not gather momentum and gallop along, why apparently have they seemed to fail; is it because external forces ameliorated themselves, or other reasons?
  (Professor Salter) The reasons for these things are always very complicated. Certainly, I believe that there were people who wanted to appear to have a brisk renewable energy programme but did not want it to succeed; and they were, I think, in a position to influence the targets that were set. And the really crucial thing was, we were told to design for an enormous installation of 2,000 megawatts, two really big power stations, and this would be like telling Blériot that he had to do a fleet of Boeing 707s; and, to our shame, we fell for it. People in other countries, who I think will be doing better, asked what is the smallest step that you can make that will build up confidence in wave energy. As soon as you look at 2,000 megawatts, of any kind of technology, it is quite terrifying, if you go into a modern, coal-fired power station of 1,000 megawatts, the whole thing is frightening: It just looked too frightening to the people who were going to make decisions about whether to build it or not.

  53. Before we go to Dr Turner, I was going to ask you just one final question, what do you think we have learned from these past experiences, but I think actually you have said incrementalism is the thing we have learned, is it not?
  (Professor Salter) I think we learned a great deal from that first programme, we learned about how to test models and how to make waves in tanks and how to measure them. There is a great deal of very useful information which is the basis of what is going to lead to success with the present generation of wave energy demos. All that research is being applied now, from the first programme, it has matured and it is being used now.

  54. You were very positive just then, you said: "We are going to learn from this so the present programme will succeed," or words to that effect. Are you positive?
  (Professor Salter) The test results from the first British wave programme are being used now, in the design of the equipment that is going to go to sea soon.

  55. But you gave me the impression, in the wording of your last answer, that you thought that we were on the verge of success, this time; am I wrong?
  (Professor Salter) I think we were on the verge of engineering success but political failure; the better the engineering came, the worse the political support. It really is quite true. And there were unwise remarks made in the gentlemen's lavatory of the Randolph Hotel, and very early in the wave programme; someone said: "How much is it going to cost to kill this?", and the answer was: "It's going to be £50 million to stop wave energy." These were comments between two very senior people in the British energy establishment. It has always been the case that existing industries want to stifle the things that are going to challenge them. The canal owners did everything they possibly could to stop railways; and the railways then did everything they could possibly do to stop road transport. When the first electricity was generated, by Ferranti, and, incidentally, it cost 50 pence a kilowatt hour if you scale everything back to this costs of the day. They were prevented from transmitting electricity across a parish boundary by a decision by the Board of Trade. We are dealing with the direct descendants of the people who said: "You must not transmit electricity across a parish boundary." They had to have DC, so that there was an arrangement where you had to have either all the lights on in your house or none of them, because wiring was all arranged in series. So every industry tries to strangle the one that is going to destroy it; valves and transistors, you look anywhere, it is always the same.

  56. I do want to move on; but are there any points you would like to make in this series of questions that you have not already commented on, Mr Thorpe?
  (Mr Thorpe) No, thank you.

Dr Turner

  57. I was going to start asking you about the sort of engineering and environmental difficulties, but, clearly, they are dwarfed by political difficulties.
  (Professor Salter) Yes.

  58. But let us look at the technical obstacles. Do you think that the obvious ones, the salt water corrosion, marine fouling, the boisterous nature of the marine environment, do you think all these difficulties can be overcome, for either tidal or wave energy machines?
  (Professor Salter) If you actually write out a list of what you think the marine hazards are, it is very short. If you write out a list of the land hazards, it is much, much longer; we do not have to deal with trees falling on us, we do not have to deal with avalanches and landslides and very wide ranges of temperature, we do not have to worry about gradients and crevasses. I think what we need to do is to understand the sea correctly and then design to dodge the forces that we do not want; we should never have a stress that is above the stress that would apply at our economic power limit. If you follow those rules and really understand what you are doing, I do not see that it is really that serious a hazard. You mentioned corrosion; the rate of corrosion of steel in sea-water is lower than the rate of corrosion of steel in a polluted atmosphere of an industrial city. If you look at the hulls of ships that were damaged coming round Cape Horn in the 19th century, which are stored in the Falkland Islands, they are still there; the corrosion rate is not that serious. It is actually more serious for wind, because you get salt spray which lands on the structures of the wind turbine and then it dries out, so you get a higher salinity concentration. The thing that makes things really corrode rapidly is sulphur dioxide coming out of engine exhausts.

  59. Do you have a view as to which technology is likely to succeed first, wave or tide?
  (Professor Salter) I think the uncertainties about tidal streams are lower, I think they can take a lot of technology from wind, and I think they are a more predictable environment; so I would expect that would reach commercial viability sooner than wave energy. The problem is that it is not such a large resource, and we can use all of it and still want more, whereas wave energy is such a big resource that it is worth going for, even if it looks hard to start with.

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