EU sustainable energy week: Alyn Smith

Scotland is home to some of the most exciting emerging energy technologies, says Alyn Smith.

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Published by The Parliament Magazine on 11th June 2012

An archipelago of around 70 islands and skerries off the north-eastern tip of the Scottish mainland is home to one of the world’s most exciting developments in renewable energy technology. Orkney is known for its rural landscape and historical sites, Highland Park whisky and Orkney fudge, but it’s the Atlantic waves that pound the western shores of Orkney and the tides that swirl round the islands that are making news around the world now.

The European marine energy centre (EMEC) is playing a key role in developing wave and tidal power as a sustainable source of renewable energy. Since 2003, the EMEC has been offering developers of both wave and tidal energy converters the opportunity to test their machines in real life marine conditions – conditions which are perfect for testing as a result of Orkney’s unique geographical location and the vision of the people at EMEC.

I was tempted to refer to the machines as ‘gizmos’, but I saw the actual size of the things when I was in Orkney recently and there’s no way to describe them as gizmos or widgets or anything else which doesn’t encapsulate the sheer scale of what is being tested in the waves off Billia Croo. These are future machines that are here in the present – and generating electricity. I was shown the test site by Lisa MacKenzie of EMEC, including inside the substation onshore – without touching anything, of course. This is the future.

Next time I hope I’ll get a chance to see the tidal test site off Eday and get even more of a feel for the work done by Neil Kermode and his team – work that is recognised around the world. It’s not just the best centre of its kind in the world, it’s the first and currently the only one; but it’s actually working to change that. EMEC last month signed an agreement to help the Japanese ocean energy association develop its own centre – cooperation on a global scale.

The most interesting part of EMEC’s work might actually be cooperation; it hosts events where its clients collaborate on building the next generation of power generation, encouraging developers to Orkney, and, in 2011, the centre became financially self-sufficient. The future appears to be bright and powered by the sea. I’m Scotland’s only member of the European parliament’s energy committee and acutely aware of Scotland’s role as a heavyweight energy player in Europe, as demonstrated by EMEC.

We have about 25 per cent of Europe’s tidal power and 10 per cent of its wave power, in addition to 25 per cent of European offshore wind resource potential. In all, Scotland could produce 12 gigawatts of energy from marine renewable and offshore wind sources by 2020. Marine energy has not always been so popular, though; with new technology, high costs, a challenging environment and a lack of political prioritisation, it has often struggled alongside other renewable technologies. That’s changing now, there’s an increasing number of devices reaching full-scale live testing and proving their reliability over sustained periods, driving new investment, which in turn benefits development. Some EU member states are indicating that part of the renewable energy contribution, within their national renewable energy action plans by 2020, are marine-focused.

Scotland has hit the energy jackpot, with centuries of experience in coal and decades in hydro, oil and gas, which will increasingly be augmented by our future technologies in renewables; wind and biomass as well as wave and tidal, our fingerprints are all over energy production. Renewable energy may be an industry in its infancy but it’s a continuation of a proud tradition for Scotland, driven by some very smart and innovative people.

Alyn Smith is a member of parliament's industry, research and energy committee