Examination of Witnesses (Questions 45
WEDNESDAY 14 MARCH 2001
H SALTER FRSE AND
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
(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
(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
(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
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.
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.