Raising Atlantis – surf’s up for the UK tidal power industry

16 February 2012 (Last Updated February 16th, 2012 18:30)

The UK marine tidal power industry is in its early stages, but new turbine technologies are fuelling a boom. Heidi Vella speaks to Atlantis Resources Corporation CEO Tim Cornelius to learn more about their AR1000 nacelle turbine as it enters a new round of rigorous testing at the UK's National Renewable Energy Centre (Narec).

Raising Atlantis – surf’s up for the UK tidal power industry

In 2011, the global tidal wave industry, although in its infancy, gained considerable momentum, with most of the big players in the sector having links to UK-based companies or using the UK's leading test facilities.

According to Renewable UK's 'State of the industry' report, published last year, taking the industry from its developmental phase into a fully fledged commercial industry could generate revenue in the region of £6.1bn.

"A report published in 2011 by Renewable UK revealed tidal and wave power employs around 800 people but could employ around 19,500 individuals."

In fact, estimates from the Renewable Energy Association suggest that, if fully exploited, wave and tidal power could supply at least 10% of the UK's electricity. Increased government support and legislation is helping this burgeoning industry find its feet and helping power companies, such as Atlantis, grow and develop its technology.

Originating from Australia, Atlantis has previously held projects in Singapore and at home in Australia. However, due to the advancing test facilities and growing UK market they have chosen Britain to base and test their new AR1000 tidal turbine.

According to Tim Cornelius, the UK has provided ideal conditions to develop the AR1000: "I think it has played a very big part, the fact that the UK is now leading the way in marine power, leveraging off the success of the oil and gas industry and the on and offshore wind industries in the UK."

The AR1000 is currently based at the European marine energy centre (EMEC) in Orkney, Scotland, but the next phase of testing will involve utilising Narec's new 3MW capacity turbine drive train test facilities onshore test bench.

Due to open in the UK during spring, it will provide a unique opportunity for Atlantis to gain rapid data and test the AR1000 in extreme conditions.

Subsea and onshore testing

The marine wave power industry is in its infancy and so there is no set path or protocol yet established for testing wave power turbines.

"According to Renewable UK's 'State of the industry' report, published last year, taking the industry from its developmental phase into a fully fledged commercial industry could generate revenue in the region of £6.1bn."

Therefore, many in the industry have adopted protocol from comparable industries, such as wind, oil and gas, as Cornelius explained: "The typical way you should run an engineering programme is obviously: design and build it, test bench it, where it is extensively tested, then it goes into the field - that is very standard in offshore winds, very standard in the oil and gas industry."

The primary open-ocean testing the AR1000 underwent consisted of three phases: installation, connection and operation. First the foundation structures were physically deployed, cables laid and the AR1000 was physically attached.

Various teams offshore then practised installation and recovery of the AR1000. The second phase involved working undersea where engineers practised and perfected the technique of being able to physically connect the turbine to the power export cable.

Finally, in the last stage the operation of the turbine was tested. This included testing both its generation capacity and the long shore power electronics, which are its power control, power conditioning and inverters and converters.

This element of testing is an ongoing process and Cornelius anticipates that after testing at Narec the AR1000 will go back to the EMEC and undergo another 12 - 18 months operation of the system - providing electricity to the grid in the summer - and then be superseded by the next generation of AR1000 nacelle turbine.

The next stage of testing will also allow Atlantis to see how the structure handles extreme situations.

"Ultimately it [Narec test bench] allows you to simulate extreme situations you'd encounter in a field. For example, the combination of a large wave at peak tidal velocity - so two things providing a lot of impact or rotation speed on the nacelle. You can simulate those sorts of events and insure your various systems onboard the turbine perform correctly, and that just allows you to de-risk the process when you deploy the turbine in the field," said Cornelius.

The industry as it is now

"Last year Scottish Power Renewable, Aquamarine Power, Ocean Power Technologies, Scotrenewables and Wello Oy all had active developments in the UK."

How does Atlantis believe their new turbine will impact on this growing industry? "There is no doubt it is important for the industry to have hardware in the water, it allows potential project investors to conduct more due diligence on the operation. Operational hours are what is critical for the industry. That's from the insurance, investment and project development perspective," stated Cornelius.

"It will obviously have a material impact because the more hardware around the world and the more energy produced, the more credibility there is in the tidal power market, the more investable larger-scale tidal power will become. The more installed turbines in the water, the better the economics are, it is a very simple equation."

The UK is clearly keen on encouraging development and innovation in the tidal power technology industry. From the unveiling of the first Marine Energy Park in the southwest to facilities such as the EMEC, which is the first of its kind, and Narec's onshore testing facility, the UK could utilise tidal power in order to greatly contribute to hitting the target set by the EU of 15% renewable contribution to total UK energy consumption by 2020.

A report published in March 2011 by Renewable UK also revealed tidal and wave power industry employs around 800 people but could employ around 19,500 individuals.

Only two per-cent of the world is expected to have tidal power capabilities and 20% to 30% of that is estimated to be in Europe, 80% of which is located in and around the coastlines of the UK and France. Cornelius agreed that the UK is a market leader and have helped them realise the development of the Nacelle1000.

"I think where governments are able to supply support like they have in the UK then significant developments are made in what is potentially a very large industry. So we like other key developers are very pleased with the level of support that has come from the UK," stated Cornelius.

It is not only facilities and labels that make a real difference to a growing industry but appropriate legislation, helping developers entering into marine power technology financially viable. Only this week Scottish Enterprise, whose money has helped other projects such Aquamarine's Oyster 3 project at the EMEC, announced a £6 million investment into wave and tidal energy in the seas around Scotland.

"The UK's recent legislation and pertaining to increasing the subsidy from three rocks to five rocks per tidal will go a long way to risk adjusting the early stage investments and projects, it will help all developers get down the cost curve in an expedient period of time," he added.

Future of UK marine power

It's not only Atlantis who are taking full advantage of the UK's commitment to tidal and wave energy. Last year Scottish Power Renewable, Aquamarine Power, Ocean Power Technologies, Scotrenewables and Wello Oy all had active developments in the UK.

Power Company Ecotricity are also developing an innovative marine energy capability that will cost less than 2p per kilowatt hour if the technology lives up to its potential.

It remains to be seen how much impact Atlantis's onshore testing at Narec will prove to have on the AR1000 and industry as a whole, and whether Atlantis successfully produce a significant amount of electricity to the grid when the AR1000 returns to the EMEC, which is what really counts.

However, there is no doubt it is an exciting time for tidal and wave power in the UK right now. With continued investment, co-operative legislation and developments like the AR1000 nacelle, the UK is most definitely moving closer to hitting EU mandatory targets for renewable energy with the help of wave and tidal power.