Sea Snake Sunk.


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When the Pelamis engineers trundled up in their tugboat on Friday to greet the sea snake, it was gone. At some point in the night, the snake had roused itself from its dreamless, uninvaded sleep and slipped its moorings. It had been disgruntled for some time: it was supposed to splash about in the waves, powering pretty seaside towns with whips of its tail; yet it had instead dangled limply in the sea with the water lapping ineffectively at its clanking joints. Perhaps it might have dreamed of growing into a leviathan, which would wrap itself around the whole coastline and supply three times the UK’s electricity demand. But it had remained a tiddler. The sea snake had made for the open sea and depths where it will lie for ages, battening upon huge sea-worms in its sleep.

And so Pelamis is now in administration. The company is quartered in Leith and it hopes to flog off its staff of 56 along with the patents and keep itself intact. Tychy will always go into battle for new technology but Pelamis might not be the best sort of new technology. For a start the company is not, in fact, particularly new: it has been floating about for sixteen years, accruing awards and piecemeal corporate sponsorship, losing its corporate partners just as steadily, and never achieving the commercial oomph needed to enter into large-scale production and found happy colonies of sea snakes. Whilst Pelamis’s technology was new, its status as a company had never been original. Over the last two years, two similar marine-energy innovators Wavebob and Oceanlinx have shared the same fate as Pelamis. All three were set up between 1997 and 1999.

Although it is not fun to watch these small outfits failing, you might think that a messy, ruthless period of competition is just what the marine energy sector requires. There is currently not much by way of corporate surpluses or direct state funding to go around (the latter is sometimes disguised as “awards”), not least because each of these sources is naturally holding out for the other to invest first. The consequent funds are spread too thinly and between too many competing organisations. Why not agree upon a single design, rather as there is only one established model of wind turbine, and, in this way, put all of the available money on the best horse?

Consigning large, complicated works of engineering to the sea and getting the size, design, location, and durability right is evidently a horrendous challenge. The existential predicament for marine turbines is that placing themselves in the way of energy-rich waves and tidal currents also involves getting beaten up by them. Previous devices have developed debilitating technical failures or even, in the case of Oceanlinx, sunk outright. Perhaps once a viable model has become generally identifiable, capital will pounce and the state can begin to smile.

SeaGen might be such a model, residing as it presently does under the aegis of Siemens. The Green journalist Stephen Lacey has described SeaGen as “one of the only operational success stories” in the industry. The SeaGen tidal stream turbine was the first to be accredited by OFGEM as a commercial power station. It was plumped in Northern Ireland’s Strangford Lough in 2008, costing £9million to make and install, whilst it in return generates 1.2 megawatts (MW). By contrast, the wind turbines at Clyde Wind Farm, in South Lanarkshire (which were built en masse) each cost £3.9 million to erect and they each generate 2.3 MW. Yet, as with medieval humours, the temperament of these turbines reflects their respective elements. A wind farm can choose from hills, moors and plains for a location, but, wherever it makes its home, there will be days when the wind doesn’t blow. The SeaGen turbine was produced for a specific location, a quiet sea loch with a speeding tidal stream, but in exchange for this pickiness it is guaranteed less dramatic vagaries of supply.

Siemens is now intending to sponsor eleven projects around the UK’s coast, each with a capacity of between 10 and 30MW. Although Pelamis built wave rather than tidal stream turbines, its plans to establish sea snake colonies with a similar capacity failed to attract just this sort of funding. A sea snake, with its capacity of 0.75MW and glitches in the field, does not weigh well against the SeaGen model.

The world’s marine turbines are embroiled in a protracted civil war with each other for resources, whilst they are allied on a broader front against wind energy providers. This broader war is also something of a family dispute, however, since machines such as the Pelamis sea snake are de facto wind turbines, in harvesting energy from surface waves which are produced by the wind. Marine energy providers often talk as if wind is a short-term preoccupation and waves or tidal currents are there for the long-term. It is no coincidence that SeaGen is, in its design, almost literally an underwater wind turbine.

Capital is not so much being lured down a different road as it is being rebuked for the journey that it is already on. Why have we invested billions of pounds building wind farms across Scotland, when marine energy is inherently superior? We might be complacent about the apparent sluggishness of marine turbines. Each of Siemens’ forthcoming projects, for example, will generate only a fraction of the energy of Scotland’s existing wind farms and they are still not off the page. But in the long-term, tides and waves just don’t stop like the wind does; they have a greater energy density and they can travel for hundreds of miles without losing much energy; the supply can be predicted with far more accuracy; and, most importantly, the turbines are politically acceptable.

Marine turbines will evade the sheer unpopularity of wind turbines, both onshore and off, by snuggling in the waves, “out of sight and out of mind” as Richard Yemm, the Pelamis inventor, once promised. Indeed marine turbines have the makings of a consensus technology, uniting landlubbers who think that wind turbines are too ugly with the greens who think that they are too inefficient.

An analogy might be drawn with the boom in tram-line building across American cities in the late nineteenth century and the immediate volte-face when motor transport was commercialised. But as is demonstrated by the HS2 project, which is still lumbering along with a virtually Gothic majesty, ours is not an era of spectacular infrastructure gambles. Capital will have to judge whether the eventual returns from marine energy outweigh the costs of pulling resources from the already-mobilised march of wind turbines.

If this commentary seems cool and somewhat aloof, this is because Tychy favours a massive investment in proven technologies such as nuclear power and fracking. The trendy research and development within sectors such as marine energy only makes nuclear power appear correspondingly tired and staid. I agree with the nuclear advisor Milton Caplan that, “We must be able to demonstrate that today’s nuclear technology is a technology of the future and that advancements are indeed coming that make every project better than the last… we need to be more vocal about our achievements. We need to celebrate our innovation.”

Nevertheless I am not one of those people who have a bigoted preference for one sort of energy and dismiss all others out of hand. Every frontier is glamorous and the marine energy sector faces complicated challenges which it would be exhilarating to see engineers overcoming. Pelamis may be down but marine energy is not out. In fact Pelamis may not be down: it has secured serious corporate funding in the past and there may be investors still minded to take a flutter on it. Crowdfunding could backfire, in exposing the technology to a high-profile test of public confidence. If Pelamis makes a comeback, planned reforms to the UK electricity market should subsidise it and other renewable providers when the market price of electricity falls too low for them to profit: a significant added incentive for investor capital.

If Pelamis is doomed, however, then those sea snakes do have a certain familiar look about them. Maybe they could be hooked up to Edinburgh’s new tram network and you could slither off down Princes Street inside a sea snake.


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