Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 128 - 139)




  128. Mr Fraenkel, Mr Thomson, Dr Yemm, thank you very much indeed for coming before the Committee this afternoon. I believe that you were in the public gallery for the first session so you know how the Committee operates. Before I put the first question to you, could I ask you if you would state your name, the company you work for and the position you have in that organisation?

  (Mr Fraenkel) My name is Peter Fraenkel. I am Managing Director of Marine Current Turbines Ltd, which is a company which is, I think, unique in specialising in developing technology for marine current usage, although in partnership with a number of rather more well known companies as well. That probably says it all. I have a background of working in renewables for the best part of 20 years.
  (Mr Thomson) Allan Thomson, Managing Director of Wavegen, a company specialising in wave energy technology.
  (Dr Yemm) Dr Richard Yemm, Managing Director of Ocean Power Delivery, another company specialising in the development of wave energy equipment. My personal background is in elements of wind energy technology.

  129. As we go through the next hour we shall not be able to put every single question to each one of the three of you because we will not have enough time. Committee members will probably indicate which one of you they wish to answer the question, but if any of the others feel they have a point they wish to make, if they could catch my eye I shall make sure they are called to put their point of view. The question I want to put now I do want to go to all three of you. There must be technical obstacles, I imagine, to the sort of work you are doing, as you are working in seas that have to be moving, otherwise you would not be getting any electricity from them, and there must be problems such as corrosion, marine fouling, the hazardous nature of the movement of the sea itself. What are those problems and what is the biggest problem you have had to overcome to be able to make a commercial device for generating electricity?
  (Dr Yemm) Of course it is a very aggressive environment, the off-shore world. I would like to make the point that what has changed since the previous United Kingdom wave energy programme, is the enormous wealth of experience which has been gathered by colleagues in the oil and gas sector, and although most of the points have been dealt with very thoroughly by them in terms of structural considerations, corrosion, fatigue, access, installation operations, maintenance, etc., I firmly believe that the biggest hurdle we are going to face is operating and maintaining this equipment on site. I think the status of the engineering to get the structure and systems reliable enough, cheap enough, ultimately efficient enough, is there. I think the challenge will be to operate a low enough cost annual maintenance programme to keep the equipment running at peak efficiency for the kind of length of time we are talking about. The specific technological issues have been addressed. It is up to each system to prove its operability.
  (Mr Thomson) I think the technologies have been resolved and the solutions are there. The key now is to bring them down to a price. That is a combination of getting real life experience in the environment so that we know what the actual loads are and then after that design down to those loads and then from there moving on to mass manufacturing to bring the price down further. I think there are no technological hurdles to be overcome.
  (Mr Fraenkel) I very much go along with what both the previous speakers have said. The biggest difficulty we see in the area I am working in, which is marine currents, is very much on the off-shore aspects of it, operational problems, installation, maintenance, keeping the technology going, and in a way to learn this and to get the experience and credibility, reduce the risk, which is what is necessary to attract investors. A key requirement is to have some demonstration projects under our belt and some success behind us.

  130. On that point I would like to address this question just to Mr Thomson because Mr Fraenkel has just said we need to have some demonstration projects. Your company, Mr Thomson, Wavegen, has got a device in Islay that has been operating. What lessons have you learned from that demonstration project in Islay over the recent year or so?
  (Mr Thomson) Most of them have been to do with project management in terms of selection of contractors and how one actually executes the task within the weather windows. Our contractors often have been optimistic in their views and have resisted some of the advice we have given them and this has cost us time penalties. Also, we have learned that there is general resistance from the consulting engineering community to design perhaps more bravely without hard data, which I can understand. Everyone needs real data to design economically. Therefore, the first devices tend to be substantially over-designed and this has a major cost impact on companies like ourselves.

  131. Do I take it that none of you has had any problem with the connection from your device to the grid, the electrical connection from a moving device in the sea, along the sea bed, up the sea shore, to the grid? That is not a technical problem that gives you too much difficulty?
  (Mr Thomson) The three devices we have built have all been static and therefore there are no moving components. However, off-shore the gas industry do have floating structures with power umbilicals going to the sea bed and they do not appear to have difficulty.
  (Dr Yemm) There are precedents, the precedents are not perfect and we are still learning about it, but consultation with appropriate industries and clever design for connection of the umbilical at an appropriate point we have had indicated to us is not a major technical hurdle.
  (Mr Fraenkel) We have probably a slightly worse problem than the wave energy people in the sense that we are deliberately going into areas with very high currents and obviously there is a risk of disruption of cables in that situation. We have not yet had a project which is mains connected from any distance off-shore, so we are just anticipating the problems. However, as Richard Yemm quite rightly said, there are precedents. There are cables across the Pentland Firth, between Jersey and France and other places where statistical data exists as to how the cables will withstand the conditions and it is a problem but not an impossible problem.

Dr Turner

  132. I am not quite sure whom to address this to because I guess you all probably have a view. I guess Mr Thomson's company is slightly further along the road in some respects because you have done it on the ground. Do you feel that the Government has a coherent strategy for developing wave and tidal energy at present that can take ideas from the drawing board through development, through testing and building prototypes and getting them commercially exploited? Is there a strategy that you are aware of? Is it helping you?
  (Mr Thomson) I am not aware of a coherent strategy, although over the last year there has been a dramatic difference in the approach from the DTI and government organs generally to our kind of technologies. My experience over the last ten years is that it is a day and night difference but from beginning to end it is not clear to me.

  133. You said there had been a step change in the last year or so. Could you say what that is?
  (Mr Thomson) Yes. There is now funding available for wave energy. Previously there was not and therefore for there to be funding at all is a major step forward. Wave energy in the past, as with many of these technologies, has suffered from fitful support. By the time one has a team together and projects together the funding simply dies away and it is impossible to keep the team together and therefore there is a finite period when one has a total organisation to fulfil projects.
  (Mr Fraenkel) In my case it is a different situation because we are not talking about wave energy we are talking about the tidal stream. Until quite recently there has been really no policy from the Government on it. In fact, if you had asked officials in the DTI last year they would say they do not have a policy for tidal stream. Whatever they did say about it was based largely on the study they commissioned back in 1993, The UK Tidal Stream Review, which was rather negative. A recent contract which they awarded to Binnie, Black and Veatch to look at tidal stream technology has shown, as we suspected all along, that in fact it was an extremely pessimistic study at that time. I have to support what Allan Thomson has just said, that there seems to be a change, I think as a result of very recent work, namely the Binnie, Black and Veatch study which was only completed last month and it is only in draft form at the present time but it endorses more or less what we have claimed all along. I went to a meeting addressed by Peter Hain yesterday and I was able to ask him a question about what proportion of the £100 million for R&D that the Prime Minister mentioned the other week might be available for marine renewables, and he, quick as a flash, said: "£55 million", which I thought was rather encouraging, although what proportion of that might go towards marine currents I do not know. The truth is that the DTI has been either negative or neutral, certainly not positive, until quite recently but we have real hopes that things are changing at the moment.
  (Dr Yemm) I would like to warmly welcome the change in status of the United Kingdom wave energy programme. In the absence of a lot of proven technology, in the absence of a firm market, it is absolutely essential for us to secure investment that there is at least clear support for R&D activities. The budget at the moment is modest but that is understandable in a way in the light of the previous United Kingdom wave programme. I think it is finally up to the wave industry itself to show that it can deliver good results with modest amounts of money, at which point it clearly becomes easier for government to commit significant amounts of money. Can I just qualify that by saying that almost every single successful precedent for commercialising technology has not been technology pushed. We do need R&D support; it is essential. But it has been proven time and time again that the most effective way is, as you mentioned, a coherent policy to take the technology all the way from concept to commercialisation, and that market pull must be present from the start. That is the successful model used by wind energy and if the United Kingdom Government is serious about commercialising wave energy so that we can either utilise it here or sell it abroad as an export market, then that is the model which should be followed.

Dr Turner

  134. Can you give a view, Dr Yemm, and any other contributions would be welcome, on the next question? What would you like to see in a Government strategy for developing your two areas of technology?
  (Dr Yemm) Firstly, there are technologies at different levels of maturity. This is absolutely clear. There are hare-brained, not-even-on-the-drawing-board, schemes to partially proven demonstration schemes such as the Limpet. We need to take account of this in whatever strategy so, taking that as the starting point, I feel that the technical promise and commercial promise and industrial promise of wave energy systems, both at home and abroad, are so compelling that commercial support (on a modest scale initially; we are not asking for the earth, and recognising that there has to be a risk assessment for the allocation of any funds or any support) for technologies that prove themselves, such as demonstration schemes, such as the Limpet if it continues to perform as it is doing at the moment, should be offered to continue demonstration immediately—not in a review round in 2010 when the process will have been carried out in another country, but as and when technologies are ready for commercial exploitation. They should be offered the chance to offer sufficient rates of return to the investor as off-shore wind and biomass are being offered now through capital grant schemes. They should be offered that chance to continue their commercialisation process and not be held up by the rest of technologies. What we need is a measured but, if you like, vigorous enough system to ensure that commercialisation is continuous and not sporadic so that we reach a sensible cost of energy within a manageable time frame.


  135. Would either of you like to make quick comments because if we have long comments we are going to lose the last few questions?
  (Mr Fraenkel) I fully agree with everything Richard Yemm just said. In addition to that, one of the problems in this country in particular is the timescale at which things happen. There has been a track record of really very slow development in all these areas. Just to give an example, the Germans, in three months over the last two years, put in roughly the same installed capacity of wind turbines as we have put in since we started more than ten years ago. The same could apply with these other technologies if we carry on as before. My plea in a sense is for a system in which obviously there has to be proper evaluation—you do not just throw money at anything that comes along but it needs to be evaluated quickly—and there needs to be some kind of consistent support over a reasonably long time frame so that things develop without hiccups and long delays while the next phase is funded and so on, subject to completing milestones and satisfaction in delivering to pre-determined targets so that one can see that the money is being properly spent.

  136. Are you content, Mr Thomson, with your colleagues' comments?
  (Mr Thomson) I think there should be support for demonstration plant which gives good messages to the capital market.

Dr Turner

  137. Which would you feel are the priority areas for research and development spending in which you might or might not expect the Government to participate? Are we talking about more investment in basic research or, as Mr Thomson has just referred to, the demonstration projects? Where are the biggest gaps?
  (Mr Fraenkel) In our case I think it is probably rather similar to wave energy in that the biggest problems are not amenable to small scale modelling in the lab because basically the uncertainties and the risks relate largely to doing the real thing at sea. We need unfortunately some reasonably realistically large but not enormous projects in order to get our hands dirty in a sense, no doubt to make mistakes, because I believe there is a famous quote that "experience" is a word we all use to describe our mistakes, and we need to gain experience basically, but it needs to be done in a carefully monitored and carefully controlled manner. In that way I think we will make fast progress.

  138. Mr Thomson, which is the best strategy? To try and pick a few winners and support them very thoroughly with a lot of funding, or support a broad range of projects with less funding?
  (Mr Thomson) My preference would be to do good due diligence on the projects and pull them down to maybe two or three and support them fully and deeply, and get success. Otherwise you achieve very little in supporting a broad range.
  (Dr Yemm) I think that support can be across a broad range of levels. I think the DTI should move towards people who have stuck their neck out, who are serious and who have pushed their technologies a long way in the absence of support. I think it is always dangerous (which is a general philosophy of mine) to ignore fundamental research. It is cheap and quite often delivers very good value for money. I think there is a place for both. In so far as major support is concerned we do need to start picking a few winners and the candidates will become obvious if they are not already.

  139. Dr Yemm, you are probably a good person of whom to ask this question. If the Government is going to attempt to pick winners how do you recommend it goes about it?
  (Dr Yemm) I think the DTI is moving, in consultation with ourselves and many other parties, I am sure, towards trying if you like to impose a sensible check list, a tick list, a series of criteria which must be met. We have always, right from the very start, set out a staged development path, biting off manageable lumps of technical risk at each stage. I think this is the model which they would like to see: funding individual projects on a continuous basis, not stop-start, to take each concept through to its demonstration phase. Then, when the system is at a state similar to the Limpet at the moment, it is for the programme to decide whether or not it is (a) likely to be commercially viable, and (b) survivable (which is part of the same thing), at which point there should be a commitment to supporting it through demonstration and commercialisation.

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