Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Ian Alexander

  I attach a concept note which describes how it might be possible to use wave energy generators to both produce renewable electricity and reduce coastal erosion. As far as I am aware the concept of deploying this technology in a dual purpose role has not been seriously examined before. There are sufficient uncertainties that it is difficult to be confident that it will work. However the potential benefits are large and I urge the committee to commit funds to an initial study to reduce the level of uncertainty and scope the magnitude and potential cost effectiveness of the benefits.


1. Global warming/rising CO2 levelsMajor increase in energy from renewables.
2. Rapid erosion of the English east coast Slowing the process so as to give communities more time to adapt in a way which is sensitive to the ecology.

  There may be an opportunity to craft a complimentary solution to these two challenges.

  Global warming may be the most important environmental problem we have to face in the coming decades. If, as the Government has committed us to, we are to reduce our contribution to the problem then we probably need to find a mechanism to make a quantum shift away from fossil fuels to renewable energy power generation. There are plenty of technologies competing to be part of the solution. Some (on-shore wind, large scale hydro and tidal barrages) have, from a landscape and/or biodiversity perspective, unacceptable side effects. Others (biomass and photovoltaics) do not presently have the technical capacity to make a big impact on the problem. One of the few technically feasible renewables which the UK could deploy to make a major impact is wave power generation. Previous UK attempts to demonstrate the feasibility of wave power have concentrated on the energy dense, and technically more challenging, environments of the north and west coast of Scotland.

  Much of the east coast of England is eroding rapidly. This is a major problem for both the conservation movement, as important habitats are squeezed between rising sea levels and coastal defences, and the human communities as settlements are increasingly threatened by flooding or inundation. It is a corner stone of conservation thinking that you can not (and should not attempt to) stop these processes with "hard" defences but we probably do need a mechanism to "buy time" so that both human and wildlife communities have more chance to adapt to the changes. The most serious erosion events tend to happen during storms when high energy waves impact on the coast.

  By placing wave energy generators off the east coast it will be possible to reduce the amount of erosion causing wave energy which actually reaches vulnerable coastal locations. Redeployment of the money presently spent by government on hard coastal defences to this technology will help to overcome the R&D cost barrier which is presently preventing industry from more aggressively pursuing wave power generation. The east coast should be a less technically challenging environment in which to prove the technology.

  There are two reasons why this method might prove unattractive.

    —  What is proposed will interfere with "natural coastal processes" (the favoured approach of the conservation community). This is a largely philosophical point. Politicians are unlikely to stand by as whole communities are threatened by coastal erosion. Looked at politically, "natural processes" might not be very attractive; actively managing the change (managing the retreat) so that it takes place over a longer time scale should be more acceptable.

    —  While the technique proposed will reduce the amount of energy impacting on the coast and the amount of erosion which results from this we will need to be careful that other factors such as sediment drift caused by currents do not compensate. This will require careful modelling of the systems.

  In any event the sort of modelling which will need to be developed to answer these questions will not be wasted. Almost any coast where this technology will be deployed will have significant wildlife interest. A mayor modification of the wave energy environment is certain to require an appropriate assessment of the impact on any internationally important wildlife sites under the Habitats Regulations before deployment.

  If, on further investigation, the idea seems feasible there are three further advantages which might accrue from using this technology.

    1.  We have a major conservation problem with over-fishing in the North Sea. One of the contributory factors to this is that there are virtually no no-fishing zones. Additionally, modern forms of trawling and dredging (for shellfish) cause repeated damage to the sea floor, effectively preventing the establishment of any bottom vegetation and physical community structure. Deployment of this technology, in any of its currently available forms, would mean that fishing in the immediate vicinity of the generators would have to stop. We would get an undisturbed no take zone by default.

    2.  There is a growing interest by electricity generation and distribution companies in renewable technologies, reflecting an increasing concern and awareness among consumers. We have an opportunity here to work with the grain of "green consumerism" to accelerate a change which is already happening.

    3.  The Government has repeatedly said that it wishes to invest public money in infrastructure rather than spend it on revenue commitments. This technology will require both marine heavy engineering and high technology skills with the potential for both significant job creation in regions affected by the difficulties presently faced by manufacturing industry and to generate future export earnings for the UK as other countries start to look for new forms of renewable energy generation.

19 January 2001

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 8 May 2001