Politics, Opinion, Environment, Scotland, Technology, Alex Salmond, SNP, Scottish National Party, Fracking, UK Energy, Gasland, Scottish Energy, Pelamis, Wave Energy, Renewable Energy, Agucadoura Wave Farm, Canonbie, Hydraulic Fracturing
Whilst Scottish manufacturing remains a modest employer and innovator, there is still a lot to be said for Scottish energy. The nation possesses the means, at least in theory, to render it somewhat aloof from contemporary anxieties about “peak oil” and uncertain future energy supplies. With its small population and substantial natural energy reserves, Scotland remains a net exporter of energy, unlike England, and this has allowed the present SNP administration to dissent from Westminster’s “national” preference for nuclear power, in favour of taking a flutter on renewable energy. Scotland has not only secured the freedom to experiment in this field, but its government and universities are actively interested in promoting the necessary research and development. Throughout his time as Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond has remained a consistent champion of renewable energy.
But if Scotland provides one of the best existing laboratories for energy R&D, let us look at how two very different experiments have recently fared.
Since the 1970s, wave energy extraction has been damned by its most admirable qualities. It may be an eminently sensible and immaculately clean technology, but this practicality seems to leave it looking oddly impractical, and people are consequently likely to dismiss wave energy as quaint and idealistic. The individual energy devices all resemble floating UFOs, or things that might have been built in somebody’s garage for a hobby. Our story begins with “Salter’s Duck,” and from thereon it proceeds with a Sea Clam, an Oyster, an Anaconda, a Wave Dragon, and the famous Pelamis Sea Snake.
These things typically turn up in remote places such as the Orkneys or the Faroe Islands, where, in a vicious irony, the opportunities for exploiting wave energy seem to be the greatest but there is nobody around to use the energy. Whilst a metropolis such as Edinburgh may be never powered by the sea anytime in the next eight centuries, wave energy has been both literally and symbolically consigned to the periphery.
Richard Yemm’s Pelamis is currently the biggest fish in the pond – or snake in the sea – when it comes to wave energy, but it seems to have emerged as a frontrunner purely due to Yemm’s dedication and innovation in championing his invention, rather than because it possesses any apparent benefits over all of the other floating contraptions. Pelamis’ fortunes over the last ten years reflect those of the whole field, in that the company has periodically secured piecemeal funding for eye-catching projects, but it has never made a satisfactory breakthrough. In recent dips, it has lost its CEO and a third of its workforce.
Although it may seem presumptuous to call three snakes a “farm,” in 2008 the Agucadoura Wave Farm and its three hydraulic wave machines was floated off the coast of North Portugal. The world’s first wave farm came to an inglorious ending when it was shut down two months after the official opening, due to gremlins within the snakes and the bankruptcy of the project managers Babcock & Brown (for unrelated reasons).The farm cost €8.2m to launch and it provided enough energy to power 1500 homes, but there does not seem to have been enough waves to recoup a profit.
Pelamis does not, at this stage in its history, seek to make money by connecting its machines to national grids, but from selling them to bigger companies. The farmer at Agucadoura was the Portuguese renewables consortium Enersis, which went into a partnership with Pelamis rather than buying it outright, although Enersis was itself soon swallowed up by the hapless Babcock & Brown. In 2009, Pelamis entered into a fresh partnership with the power giant E.On. When Pelamis pocketed 4.8 million from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (via the Carbon Trust) a year later, this was essentially a subsidy for E.On. Pelamis is now seeking corporate ownership, and potential buyers include BAE, Rolls Royce and Siemens. In another sneaky handout, whoever owns Pelamis will receive a further 10 million if the company meets the challenges of the Scottish Executive’s Saltire Prize.
Whilst the World Energy Council has computed that the global market for wave energy could amount to £500 billion a year, Pelamis, which has made perhaps the greatest inroads into this market, is still reportedly unable to eke out a profit, even with E.On and various euphemisms for the state sinking money into it.
Critics of state intervention always insist that governments cannot “pick winners,” but in the case of Pelamis, we have a technology which looks suspiciously like a winner, at least if manufactured to scale, and yet neither the state nor the market are willing to back it for good. This may be a question of which blinks first: the state is hoping that a large private owner will eventually liberate Pelamis from further public funding, whilst the corporates hope that Pelamis will mature and develop under the aegis of the state, so that they can themselves profit from the company without investing too much money in it. Cutting off the public money could kill Pelamis completely, whilst state handouts naturally make it illogical for private finance to gamble heavily on the company.
So what about total government patronage? Scottish Enterprise has doled out 6 million to an array of wave energy concerns, thereby creating an artificial market in which various agents compete for puny handouts, but the whole field may only truly benefit if the state invests a similar figure to those currently projected for future nuclear reactors into a single bumper wave energy project.
The British state purportedly intends to spend £60 billion on further nuclear reactors. The nuclear example at least affirms that in the present market, only the state can fund ambitious energy projects, but Britain is hardly gambling on nuclear, as we have been living with this comparatively safe and cheap energy source for many carefree decades. The failure to back darker horses was ludicrously evinced by the recent failure to build a tidal barrage in the Severn estuary. One consideration behind this decision was the project’s potential to wreak massive environmental catastrophe by distressing a few birds.
Pelamis itself is institutionally biased against huge visionary schemes, not least because its overall mission remains the limited one of being successfully exploited by somebody else. It actively wishes to pioneer a technology that would prove viable to a bigger company, even if such companies will only currently invest in wave energy in order to tick a public relations box, or because they have to spend their surpluses on something.
If harnessing the power of the Earth may require moving a few mountains, Richard Yemm, the mind behind Pelamis, takes even a dim view of molehills, and he instead makes a virtue out of total invisibility. He recently reassured Professional Engineering magazine that, “There’s the old acronym ‘nimby’, but we’re working to a planning principle that was recommended to us, ‘banana’ – build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone. We’re out of sight and out of mind.”
They are certainly bananas down in Dumfries and Galloway. Last November, Greenpark Energy was granted a license to extract methane gas from coal seams below the village of Canonbie. One may think that this speck of a community would be delighted to find itself finally contributing something other than cream teas to the wider world. They may indeed have been, for all that one can tell, for the subsequent “anti-fracking” campaign was led by unelected outsiders such as the wittily-named pressure group “Frack Off” and an opportunistic Green candidate for Westminster, Alis Ballance, rather than by anybody who was actually connected with the community.
“Fracking,” or the extraction of shale gas with hydraulic fracturing, is rather like a medieval witch, in that any strange phenomena in a particular locality will be superstitiously attributed to the nearby frackers. The process apparently causes what extremists describe as “earthquakes” and moderates describe as “tremors,” although the English language in fact appears not to possess a word for an insignificant, scarcely detectable readjustment deep below the Earth. There are also profound terrors that the harmless fluids used in the course of fracking may “pollute” local water supplies, possibly Canonbie’s village well, and even render the water flammable.
Visions of flammable water were divulged in Josh Fox’s 2010 documentary Gasland, which some environmentalists still willfully persist in citing as if it was a reliable piece of journalism, when the film’s incompetence as propaganda is exceeded only by the credulity of its audiences. If natural gas had really passed through several thousand feet of impermeable rock to enter the water supply it would have been a miracle, disproving all known scientific laws, and we would have to worship Josh Fox as the latest prophet.
It seems probable that a community such as Canonbie, if their protests are indeed genuine, would quickly discover that they did not care very much about the quality of their groundwater if they were bribed with, say, cheaper energy prices. In any case, Greenpark told Canonbie that their drilling was unlikely to require fracking, and that their “last resort” would be to pump a sort of foam bubblebath rather than pressured water into certain seams. Yet the anti-frackers gormlessly hyped whatever lies below Canonbie to an extent which could only assist the consequent sale of Greenpark, and the new owner Dart Energy now plans to embark on exploration and extraction throughout Scotland.
One may think that the combination of cheap gas and freezing winters (in which hundreds of pensioners perish in poorly-heated homes) is a no brainer. Apparently not – “Frack Off Scotland” is warning us not to Frack with Scotland, for Frack’s sake, and we are surely consigned to an eternity of witless protesting and similarly excruciating wordplay.
[Previously on Tychy: "Hit the Gas - Onwards with Hydraulic Fracturing." Ed.]