Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  140. We have not put any numbers on the money, do you feel there is a critical mass of R&D input that is needed in this sector of activity to develop and sustain a thriving UK marine energy supply industry?
  (Dr Yemm) I think what it needs to be is a carefully monitored process. In my belief, ETSU—and I would like this to be noted—are doing a very good job of managing the budget they have, and I think they ought to be openly commended for that. I think they are capable if they are given appropriate budgets—and we are talking enough money to stimulate enough demonstrations to keep development going at the pace required to commercialise within a reasonable time frame, ie fully commercialised by 2010 so that major installation can begin. We are talking initially of sums of millions of pounds, moving in the middle of the decade to tens of millions, by the end of the decade if commercialising in this country very large sums. Obviously the faster it is pushed, the faster it is likely to be delivered, but there are certainly impassable obstacles such as long-term reliability which need to be addressed, but these can be addressed in parallel with moving to the next stage, as was very, very ably demonstrated, and still is, by the wind sector.


  141. I think Dr Turner was asking you to put a figure to the amount of money you thought ought to be made available.
  (Mr Thomson) The companies sitting here are looking—and do correct me—at roughly about £1 million each to get projects off the ground. So less than £5 million.
  (Mr Fraenkel) I think it is worth adding there is a kind of minimum critical mass to do an offshore project which is of the order of £1 million to £2 million, but fortunately most of these technologies are actually not that expensive, which is one of the reasons we do believe they have long-term potential, compared with most energy technologies. They are modular, they cannot be built on a tiny scale but they can be built on a relatively small scale to start with.

Dr Turner

  142. So if Tony is serious, then £55 million could get you guys moving?
  (Mr Fraenkel) Absolutely.

Dr Iddon

  143. This Committee has been very concerned that the UK is not ahead of the race in the development of wind power, in fact we are importing technology mainly from Denmark and possibly other countries. With that in mind, we are concerned we get ahead of the race in the development of wave and tidal power, and we are aware that the Danish Government have a national wave and tidal testing facility at Nissum Bredning Fjord in North Jutland. When we took evidence from Greenpeace they suggested to match that Britain really ought to be doing something similar, for example in the Orkney Islands. Do you think we should establish a national wave and tidal test facility, if not in Orkney somewhere else, similar to the one in Denmark? Would that be an advantage to the development of wave and tide?
  (Mr Thomson) The biggest cost is actually the cable back to the grid and also drilling things to the sea bed, so to have a facility where researchers can go and take their readings, have access to grid for monitoring, would be very helpful, I think.
  (Dr Yemm) Something which happened at the start of wind energy which must not happen here is that you got people developing machines which they then claimed the earth for, people invested in them, they did not deliver and it soured the whole industry. That is what happened at the start of wind energy. I am personally virtually the chief proponent in the industry of side-by-side testing and, at the very least, setting up standardised test procedures, using standardised equipment and methodologies. I think this is something which should be looked at within the ETSU programme as well. I personally think the establishment of a test site would be a tremendous initial boost to offshore wave energy in the UK and I fully support that.
  (Mr Fraenkel) There is a slightly different situation with tidal currents in that I believe the Danes are only interested in wave energy, they do not have much in the way of tidal current resources actually. I endorse the idea of a test centre but unfortunately the physical conditions which suit tidal currents do not necessarily coincide with those which suit wave energy. So I am not sure one could have a single location which would suit both purposes, although one might find two sites which were reasonably close together.

  144. Of course, it is more than a test facility in Denmark, it is a national showcase where anyone interested in wind energy can go. It is more than just research, it is almost an exporting device as well. Greenpeace gave us a figure of £10 million, do you think that is a reasonable cost of establishing such a facility?
  (Mr Thomson) That sounds quite high to me.
  (Dr Yemm) It sounds high to me. I think the likely major cost in it is the upgrade of the grid. We have looked at various issues there. The nice thing about spending money on grid upgrade is that it is rarely wasted because it is infrastructure. If individual projects fail, the infrastructure is still there. It is not like spending money on steel. The grid would be a major cost centre. I have looked into it with a moderate amount of detail, and I think that is a high figure. What is required is steady support for it as it grows. If it takes off, if it is a major going concern, if it appears to be delivering what it was designed to do, then it should have an expanding remit. Initially, I would not have thought it would take anything like £10 million to get the concept off the ground.

  145. Are British companies co-operating enough in this area already? If so, perhaps they could co-operate on a test facility, or is commercial confidentiality a big barrier to co-operation in such a test facility in the UK?
  (Dr Yemm) I do not see a problem with that at all. We have a lot of common problems in the wave industry and tidal sector, it is not in our interests to each spend half a million pounds on consents, it is not in each of our interests to spend £2 million on grid connection upgrade, or whatever the figure is. I think we have reached consensus through another organisation, the Scottish Wave Commission, which is also speaking to other overseas teams who are keen to bring equipment here. One of our chief competitors in Holland—and they only have ripples, they do not have waves at all in Holland—is clearly looking to establish an industry in another country. They are establishing their prototype in Portugal and have invited us to put our prototype there as well. So if I can add something to this debate, it is something which needs to happen quickly or there will be almost certainly a declaration of a European test site in Portugal, and the opportunity for this here will be lost.

  146. That was my next question, because we had heard from Greenpeace that your company, Dr Yemm, and Wavegen were actually considering pulling out of testing in the UK and removing yourselves to Portugal if there was not a catalyst to facilitate a testing centre being set up. Is that a real possibility?
  (Dr Yemm) That sounds very draconian. I believe firmly and have always believed that wave energy is a tremendous UK opportunity because of the mix of skill base, the technology base and the resource. If, however, there are not clear signs to us—and by clear signs I mean an element of market pull, an element of technology banding, an element of specific support for the specific needs of wave energy—but those are offered elsewhere, you would have to have very strong reasons to stay in one place. I think we can operate from here and test elsewhere, but we have to go where the support is.
  (Mr Thomson) We are unlikely to move out of the UK but if there were facilities available in Portugal for testing, we would take advantage of them.

  147. So you would like us to encourage the British Government to facilitate the setting up of a test facility in this country, and that would encourage you to stay. Are there any other barriers, like planning, going through dozens of planning consents? What other barriers, apart from the absence of a test facility, would discourage you from staying in the UK?
  (Mr Fraenkel) We have actually got a plan which has been fairly well looked into and we have done site work and all the rest, to install a 300 kW prototype off Lynmouth in Devon. It is quite a complicated location because the coastline there is a national park and it is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest, so we just about picked one of the most complicated places to try and do something. We have agreement in principle from all the regulatory authorities involved, we have had on-site discussions and we have done site surveys. It is quite a major task. For example, we are being expected by the DETR to do a fairly extensive environmental impact study which is going to cost us £30 to £40,000, which is quite a lot of money for a small company. We are partly the victim of being a pioneer. It is always a problem if you are the first one because you are under much more suspicion than anybody else. We are getting a lot of sympathy from the locals and we are aiming, assuming we can go ahead on schedule, to have public meetings to make sure there are not the kind of worries or misunderstandings which have occurred in relation to wind energy. So it is worth making the point that the initial hurdles are tricky and heavy and they happen at a time when you are least able to cope with them, and more Government support would be extremely useful for that. In our proposal with the DETR at the moment we do raise this and we hope they might help us to overcome these problems.

Dr Jones

  148. You said the locals are very sympathetic, what do you mean by that?
  (Mr Fraenkel) We have had media coverage—in fact involuntary because our policy is to keep a low profile until we have something to say—which has generally been pretty good and the response we have had, in the way of e-mails and letters from the public, invitations to give lectures and this kind of thing, has been: "This is very interesting, come and talk to us".

  149. Is that because the public are enthusiastic about renewable energy?
  (Mr Fraenkel) I think they like renewable energy if it does not seem to have any downside to it, and we have at the moment an image that we have something which has only a limited downside in terms of environmental impact or visual impact but which can supply clean energy, and I think that has got across.

  150. Mr Thomson, you said the biggest cost is the cable back to the grid, could you elaborate a little about your transmission problems from the generator at Islay?
  (Mr Thomson) We are on the land, so it is much easier for us; we do not have the same difficulty that offshore devices have. Remote grids tend to be weak and therefore one has to stiffen the grid, which is to say put heavier conductors in and other transformers or whatever to take the capacity. Also at the end of a grid we tend to have to put power electronics in to make sure the power quality in the grid is not affected; it is improved in fact.

  151. Dr Yemm, you said that investment in the grid infrastructure would pay off irrespective of what happened to the generators. I did not quite understand that, because if you have not got anything generating the power, why would it be worthwhile investing in grid infrastructure?
  (Dr Yemm) I was talking in that context specifically about test sites. Say, for example, you received a certain percentage capital grant for the machine and it foundered, that would be money down the drain. If you received support for infrastructure, it remains there for other people to use. In general, as we have heard earlier, a lot of resources are at the end of the distribution system. If wave does not take up capacity, I am sure wind will, so it is a general infrastructure.

  152. If the grid needs upgrading who should pay?
  (Mr Thomson) If one looks at the previous history in Scotland with hydro-electric or indeed Dounreay, both were seen as being strategically important for the country. The grid for Dounreay has 300 MW installed capacity, it can take 600 if both sides of the pylons are strong. Hydro was also fully funded. This was all Government funding. It is debateable but if it is a national asset, it is extremely important the Government should assist. If one takes the view that the technology is unlikely to be taken up in the UK, and in our business models we assume very limited UK uptake, the bulk of the market is the export market overseas, it is still worthwhile putting in limited grid stiffening to a test site to improve the technology for export.

  153. Do other people agree?
  (Mr Fraenkel) The grid is being continuously replaced anyway, it has a finite life and will need replacement regardless of what kind of technologies are brought in. It is partly a matter of long-term planning. You might replace it in a different manner or improve bits in one place rather than have to do it somewhere else. The same applies to the generating plant, apart from the need to have clean energy generation in the future there is a need for new energy generation in the future because most of the coal-fired plant is getting near the end of its useful life, as are most of the Magnox nuclear reactors. So come what may, decisions will have to be taken just to replace the infrastructure as well as on the generating plants in the future. All I am really trying to say is, given good strategic planning and given options available to replace plant with clean plant, such as we are developing, one might look at it as the money being spent somewhere else rather than new money being spent in many respects.

  154. Is the production of hydrogen a viable solution to the transmission problems?
  (Mr Fraenkel) It is very long-term, I think. It is not immediately economic, it is almost for the second half of the century rather than the first half. That is my own view.
  (Dr Yemm) Apparently Iceland are going to be doing a test case for that, so we will watch with interest. Can I just add to the grid point? Given the kind of changes proposed by James Martin, given some local reinforcement, given some change of old components and cost sharing based on the life of the project with the grid operator, given some precedents which I believe have just been set for some different kinds of connection agreements, you can constrain off in the event of fault conditions. Basically a lot of the cost is usually associated with some very rare fault conditions, if you can agree a connection policy where you can constrain off on that which is consistent with safety and consistent with operating other aspects of the network, then I do not think there is an immediate bottleneck in the North West and, specifically, the North, which is going to hold us up for the next several years.

  155. I did not understand what you said. "Constrain"?
  (Dr Yemm) Sorry, it is a technical term. If there is a fault condition, you agree not to generate, so you do not have power going into an island, into the grid, which could cause safety problems and so on. It is a technical thing but it is something which is being considered, and I believe there has just been a precedent for it in England.


  156. Can I briefly ask questions similar to the ones we put to Dr Martin? By its very nature renewable electricity generation is dependent upon tide and wave and wind, if we are looking at that, and you are supplying electricity to consumers who want a consistent and reliable supply. What difficulties—and Dr Martin, remember, said we have to rely upon gas generators and gas turbines to make sure we do have a constant supply—what problems does this lack of regularity, lack of consistency of supply, give to each one of you with the machines you are developing?
  (Mr Fraenkel) Tidal currents are predictable, obviously, because the tides are predictable over an almost infinite period into the future.

  157. Predictable but not necessarily consistent.
  (Mr Fraenkel) Yes, I was coming to that. So we know when the power will be available and equally when it will not be available. So far as the diurnal tides are concerned, they are out of phase round the country so if you have a number of projects which are strategically distributed around, some will be generating at times when others are not. While that is not good in the sense they are all working at full power, you can have a situation where one is working at full power when the other one might not be. The big problem is the neap period, when unfortunately the sun and the moon fight against each other and the tides are not as strong, and you have to accept energy availability is reduced. One of the selling points of tidal stream, and just to give an example, is a niche market for small grids on islands where it lends itself to running in conjunction with diesel, simply because the best way to save money with diesel plant is to switch it off, and if you have at least a predictable renewable to match with diesel, you know exactly when you can switch the diesel off and when you can switch it on again. With a randomly available one such as wind, you have to have what is called spinning reserve in order to fill in if there is a lull in the wind. What I am saying is, you cannot solve the entire energy problem with tidal currents but in many ways you can match the tidal energy supply rather better to other power sources than most renewables; wave energy being actually not far off us as well, due to the predictability of wave energy.

  158. Mr Thomson, could you add very briefly your own comments please?
  (Mr Thomson) Same background. If you look at Denmark, they will have 50 per cent renewables in their system and they are going to do this with some of the new technologies coming on-stream from people like ABB, who are developing essentially network solutions whereby one can switch on/switch off renewable power supplies depending on the demand and the supply. If one looks at conventional generation plant, if you have a nuclear plant which goes wrong, as they do, they can go on for months losing gigawatts of power.
  (Dr Yemm) I think this is a problem for the future. The UK is not at a point where it has become a serious issue because of the volume of renewables in the network. We are miles below base load and it will not be a problem for the foreseeable future, in my view.

  159. Before I go back to Dr Turner, let us go into the future. You heard us ask Dr Martin what proportion of the UK's electricity might be generated from renewables in, say, 2020. Would you like to make an educated, experienced guess?
  (Dr Yemm) I first would like to say that I disagree categorically with James Martin's assessment that it is not important to take a lead in the generation of renewable energy in this country. It is up to us. If you like, being idealistic about it, we started the problem; it is up to us to take a lead and do our part. It is a worldwide problem and it needs to be addressed on a worldwide scale. In terms of realistic targets, that does come down, I think, ultimately to grid capacity and how that hurdle is addressed. I think the 10 per cent target is achievable but it will be difficult by 2010. I would like to see further targets and perhaps for regions, like Scotland, higher aspirational targets if not obligatory targets.

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