Wave and Tidal Energy

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:18 pm on 10th January 2002.

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Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown 3:18 pm, 10th January 2002

This debate is particularly timely, anticipating as it does the publication of the report of the performance and innovation unit on the future of UK energy supplies. Now is the time to look at the prospective place of wave energy and tidal energy on the spectrum of energy supply.

In answer to a point made by Mr. Key, I want to make it clear that the report under discussion specifically excludes tidal barrages, which introduce a completely different set of problems. It is a huge irony that one of the most important criteria considered by the PIU is the security of energy supply, because it is difficult to think of a more secure energy source than wave or tide. It is true that wave is somewhat variable, according to weather conditions, but an Atlantic swell sufficient to generate some power is always running, and tidal streams are wholly predictable, varying in speed only with the lunar cycle. The tides will be with us for as long as the solar system exists.

Both sources are completely immune from outside interference or market variation, and they have no price tag. Both sources are absolutely clean and free of emissions. It is unlikely that any other prospective energy source will emerge that is as truly renewable and sustainable as wave or tide power.

That is why, 18 months ago, we thought it important to assess the current state of development and exploitation of those resources and to undertake the report. The total size of the resource is enormous. As the hon. Member for Salisbury noted, there is a wide range of predictions. However, whichever estimate one subscribes to, it can be said with full confidence that the UK is in the fortunate geographical position of having almost the best wave resources and certainly the best tidal stream resources of any country in the world. That is a good starting point.

In 1999, the DTI's energy technology support unit estimated that the energy that was easily and practically accessible was 50 TWh per year from offshore wave power and 36 TWh per year from tidal power—and that from only the 10 most promising sites. Even on extremely conservative estimates, more than a quarter of the UK's total energy consumption of 330 TWh per year is available and exploitable. In fact, I am inclined to err towards the Greenpeace estimate and predict that there is sufficient exploitable energy resource to supply our total energy consumption requirements.

Another important aspect of energy provision is a regular baseline supply. The prime argument of the nuclear lobby is that nothing can supplant nuclear reactors in supplying steady, predictable baseline load. We received evidence from energy generators that they could see few problems for electricity companies in integrating both wave and tidal energy supplies into the grid owing to the reliability and predictability of their output. That certainly applies to tidal power because, apart from the short interval of slack water between tides, there is available power for 24 hours at every site. Not only that, there will eventually be constant supplies due to tidal variations—as long as sites are scattered along the coast. Tidal power is uniquely capable of supplying the baseline load that the nuclear industry claims as its prerogative.

The marine environment is harsh and challenging. However, in the UK we start from a position of advantage, because we have decades of experience in offshore oil exploration and production. We have the expertise and technology base to deal with the problem. We have an enormous transferable skills set and an enormous and readily available work force. We concluded in our report that there were no major technological barriers to the effective deployment of wave or tidal energy devices that cannot be dealt with by transferring existing knowledge within the UK. It seems strange that such an attractive resource has not been tapped before, but perhaps it is not that strange if one considers the history.

As has been mentioned, a UK Government research and development programme was started in 1974 as a response to the oil crisis. Most of us can remember Salter's nodding ducks, and it was gratifying to see Professor Salter back before the Committee as one of the witnesses because he has survived the political vicissitudes of research and development support. That programme led to a trial device that operated successfully for 10 years, but in 1982 the work was terminated because it would never—allegedly—have been commercially viable. Figures may be subject to manipulation, and I suggest that a greater factor was pressure from the nuclear energy lobby for the construction of more nuclear power stations, which is exactly what happened.

Another big mistake at the time of commissioning the original wave energy programme was that it was conceived as replicating large power-generating plants. Now we can see the absurdity of thinking that a 2,000 MW power-generation plant could be plonked into the sea. That thinking led to tidal barrages because only they, if implemented on a large scale at a location such as the Severn or Morecambe bay, could produce that amount of power in one installation. However, the picture becomes different if one examines smaller units, as we do with wind energy generation. Happily, in 1999 wave energy research and development started again because the Department of Trade and Industry realised that a major mistake had been made in the early 1980s by stopping research and development.

Denmark's achievements with wind power began in 1982. Its technological development of wind turbines has reached a state of commercial viability, and in the process it has gained an industry that employs about 15,000 people, which, given Denmark's small population, is significant. It is the world market leader in the export of wind turbines and it is responsible for producing about 90 per cent. of the wind turbines that are currently installed throughout the world.