Snow Storms, School Visits and a Serious Call to Curb Carbon

By Dr Gareth Stockman, Chief Executive Officer, Marine Power Systems (MPS)

As February drew to a close, the first snowflakes of the infamous ‘Beast from the East’ arrived at the Marine Power Systems HQ. The snow also hit RenewableUK’s Wave & Tidal conference in Glasgow at which we were present, making it – I assume – the snowiest marine energy event ever held in the UK (challenges welcome). Along with school closures, travel chaos, record-high prices for gas imports and panic buying of milk, this extreme weather event created a slight delay on the posting of this blog. But, here is a quick overview on what we’ve been up to through the shortest month of the calendar year.

At the start of February, our Design and Development Engineer Craig Whitlam made a trip to Plymouth University for an industry-focused Marine-i masterclass. Held at its COAST laboratory – a leading test facility – the session sought to further the group’s understanding of modelling, testing and analysis for marine technology. Craig presented the results of our tank testing activities in 2017 and gave some pointers to those interested in accessing the facility through the programme. He touched on our plans for this year and outlined our continued support for our partnership with Plymouth University for student projects.

Another collaboration, this time with the Pembrokeshire Coastal Forum, Marine Energy Wales and the Darwin Centre, saw us host a number of year 5 primary school classes who are learning about the different techniques used to capture energy from water. The pupils were shown the WaveSub 1:4 scale prototype and given an overview of the principles of wave energy generation. As part of their learning, they were also taken to Carew Mill, a 19th Century tidal mill in Pembrokeshire which used the same sustainable energy source – the ocean – to power its mill wheels. The juxtaposition of these two technologies, which differ in age by 200 years but overlap in a number of simple principles, was a fantastic way for the children to understand that renewable energy isn’t as new a discipline as one might think. Ideas and designs used 200 years ago are still of interest and inspiration today.

We also heard in February that, 10 years on from its launch, the Scottish Government’s Saltire Prize for Wave and Tidal Energy has still not been awarded. The story created a flurry of excitement in the media with a few digs being flung like loosely built snowballs at the Scottish Government for creating a ‘PR stunt of an award’.

What were the objectives of the Saltire Prize? Set up in 2008 the award was the first to offer a £10 million reward to anyone that could ‘push the frontiers of innovation in the crucial area of clean, green energy.’ Entrants were required to demonstrate a commercially viable wave or tidal stream energy technology ‘that achieves the greatest volume of electrical output over the set minimum hurdle of 100GWh over a continuous two year period using only the power of the sea.’

In 2008, Marine Power Systems were just getting started. We never intended to enter the award but the mere fact that a wave and tidal prize had been launched – by a Government agency, no less – showed us there was a common belief that marine energy has potential and is worth investing in. It inspired us to stay focused. It also confirmed that competition was out there and we needed to work incredibly hard if we wanted to become a commercially successful business.

So why wasn’t the Saltire Prize awarded? The first of its kind, the award’s parameters had been set with a limited understanding of what was going to be achievable within the next decade. As the Saltire Prize committee acknowledges, the marine renewables industry has made huge progress over the last 10 years, but the target it set was ambitious and harder to achieve than originally expected. Unperturbed, the prize is now under review, with the committee considering options for ‘reshaping the prize to better reflect the circumstances of the wave and tidal sectors.’ In true engineering philosophy, the way you learn is when something fails. The challenge is then to make sure it doesn’t fail again.

The future of renewables features significantly in a report by British Petroleum, also released in February. In its Energy Outlook 2018 report, BP considers carbon emissions in relation to the global energy mix between now and 2040. The report predicts that demand will continue growing at around 1.3% a year between now and 2040, driving an increase in energy use of around a third over the period. Renewables are expected to play an ever-increasing role in the overall energy mix. As Business Green’s Madeleine Cuff states in her review of the report, ‘BP predicts renewable energy will grow five-fold over the next two decades, jumping from a four per cent share of the primary energy mix in 2016 to a 14 per cent share in 2040.’ Cuff goes on to point out that this year’s report places the level of renewable energy use by 2035 as 15% higher than predicted in last year’s one.

Coming from an oil giant the projected figures are astonishing, and in the context of BP’s commitment to invest $500m into low carbon solutions, can be deemed a huge step forward for renewables. Read further into the report, however, and one notices that there is a message of urgency from Bob Dudley, the company’s Group Chief Executive:

The third, and most important, takeaway for me from this year’s Outlook is the need for more downward pressure on carbon emissions. The Outlook’s Evolving Transition scenario suggests that a continuation of the recent progress and momentum in policies and technologies is likely to cause the growth in carbon emissions to slow markedly relative to the past. But this slowing falls well short of the sharp drop in carbon emissions thought necessary to achieve the Paris climate goals. We need a far more decisive break from the past.

What can we take from this? On the one hand we should be encouraged; renewables are set to grow significantly – this message coming from a company who has oil and gas at the core of its business model. However, the stark call to action from Dudley needs to be taken on board by Governments both here and across the globe. Unless we accelerate investment, and coordinate this break from the past, we are going to be falling well short of emissions objectives, increasing global warming and likely seeing many more weather ‘events’ like the recent ‘snowmageddon’ continue to disrupt climatic patterns of the future.

Renewables can and must play a role in our new energy mix. We know that there is no one silver-bullet when it comes to renewable technologies. Diversification is of paramount importance. We also know that the pace at which renewables have gained a share in the marketplace over the last decade has been unprecedented. Investment must continue so that the scale of this energy revolution can continue to defy expectations and deliver the low carbon future that everyone – oil giants included – are calling for.