|HAYLE - Denmark catches the most wind for power. Japan absorbs the most sun. Now Britain wants to rule the waves.|
Wave and tidal stream machines are the latest exploratory technology in the rush to find alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels with soaring price tags.
"Britain has one of the best wind, wave and tidal resources in Europe," said Martin Wright, managing director of Marine Current Turbine (MCT), the company that built the world's first large-scale tidal stream machine.
Denmark beat out Britain after a strong showing in the early stages of the race to build a viable wind power industry, but the United Kingdom has a terrific opportunity to develop a wave and tidal power industry, Wright said.
Portugal, Japan, the United States, Australia and South Africa are also among the countries that want to pool energy from the natural flow of the ocean. But the global wave industry is still small and Britain wants to develop it on a large commercial scale and then export the technology.
"It's a bit of an international race to develop the technology," said Tim German, manager of Cornwall Sustainable Energy Partnership in southwest England.
Proponents say if they harnessed the energy of the ocean, they could have enough energy to power the planet. Britain's available wave power has been estimated to be around double the country's energy consumption.
IN THE WATER
Developers are already running tests and some are linked into national grids. Britain's Ocean Power Delivery (OPD) plugged its 750-kilowatt Pelamis machine into the grid in Scotland in August and Dutch Archimedes Wave Swing connected its two-megawatt machine in Portugal this month.
Britain wants these kind of developers in its waters off Cornwall, a peninsula that catches the swells of the Atlantic. A feasibility study is being conducted to develop a test centre called Wave Hub that would give developers a chance to test large-scale projects before they launch globally.
"If, for instance, Pelamis was developed in a farm of 40 machines, it could power 20,000 homes in the UK," said Michael Hay, marine renewables development manager for the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA).
Twenty farms could power a whole city the size of Edinburgh with a population of nearly 450,000.
The Wave Hub would be located 12 to 15 kilometres (10 miles) off the white sandy beach at Hayle in Cornwall and cover an area up to 20 square kilometres (7.7 square miles). The hub could eventually produce 30 to 40 megawatts of electricity each year which would be directly linked into the national grid via an old power station.
"We hope to have the machines in the water by 2006," said Mike Patching, project manager for Scott Wilson Oceans, the firm managing the feasibility study.
Patching said OPD would likely be first in the water but expects other developers from Europe and the United States could also get involved.
One of the biggest advantages to wave farms is that they can't be seen. Wind farms are economically competitive but some people complain they are an eyesore.
But just because they are out of sight doesn't mean there shouldn't be a note of caution. The devices would be on or just below the surface of the water making such farms a no-go zone for sail and fishing boats, with their deep keels and nets.
There are also some concerns about the impact on tourism, marine mammals and if the devices will cut waves for surfers.
The technology is not cheap either. Developers will need help from the government to get to the point where the economies of scale will allow the wave industry to stand on its own.
Britain wants 15 percent of the country's electricity needs to be met with renewable energy by 2015 and has allocated 50 million pounds to develop marine renewables.
Wave hub is expected to cost 9.5 to 11.5 million pounds.
"The government is keen. It's the force. It is worried about dependence on imports, an increase in price volatility and carbon dioxide emissions," said MCT's Wright.
Developers reckon there is more incentive to develop renewable energy than ever before because of record high oil prices, security concerns about supply and global warming.
"You don't have to be an engineer to realise gas, coal and oil will run out one day. This century will be a transition century, but you can't change a multi-billion dollar carbon-based industry overnight," said Patching.
Story by Mia Shanley
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE