The UK’s first marine energy park: Q&A with director Johnny Gowdy

17 April 2012 (Last Updated April 17th, 2012 18:30)

The UK has launched the South West Marine Energy Park to accelerate the development of aquatic power. Sarah Blackman spoke to programme director Johnny Gowdy to find out why the country believes that teaming with local and national authorities, as well as businesses and universities, could be the best solution to commercialise wave and tidal projects.

The UK’s first marine energy park: Q&A with director Johnny Gowdy

The UK has been developing technology and concepts for marine energy projects for the past ten years, but the launch of the country's first marine energy park in the south-west of England may finally accelerate the commercialisation of these developments and help make the most of the coastal waters which, according to the government, could generate 27GW of power by 2050.

The park will act as a one-stop shop for those interested in investing in renewable technology and pool expertise from the industry, universities and local authorities in putting project ideas into practice.

Johnny Gowdy, programme director at Regen South West, told Power Technology about the wave of opportunities in the region, the most exciting projects in the pipeline and the incentives being put forward to push these renewable developments in the right direction.

Sarah Blackman: Why has the south-west become the first area in the UK to be designated as a marine energy park?

"The two big projects are the two offshore wind farms - the Atlantic array in the Bristol Channel and the Navitas wind farm off of Dorset."

Johnny Gowdy: Regen SW has been involved in developing green energy in the south-west for about ten years now, so the original work which was done back in 2003/04, which looked at the economic opportunity and the resources in the south-west, led to investment in things like the Wave Hub and PRIMaRE (the Peninsula Research Institute for Marine Renewable Energy).

So it was very natural then that whenever Greg Barker, minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, said he wanted to establish marine energy parks that the south-west would put itself forward to develop that concept and establish itself as the first marine energy park in the UK.

That process really started in January 2011 and we worked through last year with the industry, to define what a marine energy park is, what it would do and how it would actually support the commercialisation of the marine energy sector.

One other thing which I think is an advantage is that we've got net demand for energy in the south-west. So, energy that's generated off our coast and brought onshore doesn't have to be transported and transmitted for hundreds of miles to find demand - the demand is local.

SB: Which specific areas of the south-west will the park pool its energy from?

JG: The geographic scope of the South West Marine Energy Park stretches from Bristol, down the Bristol Channel to Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, then around to the Isle of Wight, so it covers the whole of the south-west peninsula.

Within that, in terms of resources, we have tidal range resources, particularly in the Bristol Channel, so there are opportunities for tidal lagoons and tidal fences and other technologies that can extract energy.

We have tidal stream resources, particularly of the north coast of Devon and around Dorset and the Isle of Wight, and we also have wave resources off the north coast of Cornwall and the western approaches. One of the key messages we are giving is that the marine energy park contains a portfolio of resources and there are opportunities there for different technologies and different types of investments.

SB: Are there any projects in the pipeline which will make the most of these opportunities?

JG: The two big projects are the two offshore wind farms - the Atlantic array in the Bristol Channel and the Navitas wind farm off of Dorset.

"One other thing which I think is an advantage is that we've got net demand for energy in the south-west."

We've also got the Wave Hub site, which is the largest consented area for testing wave energy off the north coast of Cornwall.

We've got the Falmouth Bay Test Site (FaBTest) off the south coast, where Fred Olsen installed the first wave device - the BOLT 'Lifesaver' device - earlier this month.

We've also got opportunities for tidal energy, particularly off north Devon, and we are looking at a project for Lynmouth at the moment. We've got an awful lot of resources down here and a lot to play with.

SB: What can local universities gain from being involved in this scheme?

JG: The Peninsula Research Institute for Marine Renewable Energy is a collaboration between the universities of Exeter and Plymouth, and through that they have received about £20m in funding to support technology development.

I spoke to Exeter University a couple of weeks ago and they are thrilled that they have now got a world-class institute developing marine energy technology, producing good research and producing graduates, who are then getting excellent jobs in the industry. Plymouth University is about to open its new Marine Sciences building, which has a hydrodynamic test facility.

SB: The Department of Energy and Climate Change estimates that UK seas have the potential to generate 27GW of power by 2050. Is this a realistic target?

JG: It's a big number, but it is a long way away. I mean, it is realistic, but it will only happen if we are able to prove the technology works and we have to get the costs down to a level which is competitive with other forms of renewable energy. The resources are there. It's just a question of can wave and tidal energy be cost competitive, and I think over the next ten years, that's when we have to prove that.

SB: The Crown Estate has reduced the burden of financial guarantees it requires. Has this given the industry the incentive it needs to move forward with marine energy projects?

JG: It's certainly helping. There are a number of other things that need to happen, but that's one step in the right direction and something which we have been campaigning for.

If you ask me the question, what's stopping the industry from moving forward at the moment, then I would say the fundamental issue is access to finances. These projects cost a lot of money to get in the water and even for small projects of three to five megawatts, we're talking £50m. The market incentive - the five Renewable Energy Certificates that have been made available for wave and tidal - definitely made a difference and we are seeing a lot of interest from investors because of that.

The next area which we need to look at is how to streamline the planning and consenting process, because at the moment it is very, very onerous.

SB: What are the next steps for the South West Marine Energy Park?

"The Peninsula Research Institute for Marine Renewable Energy is a collaboration between the universities of Exeter and Plymouth."

JG: The next step for us is to work with the Crown Estate to develop a commercial development plan for the industry in the south-west, which will look at what resources we want to bring forward and how we are going to bring them to the market. On the back of that, we will work with the industry on a strategy for leasing.

What we are expecting over the next five to seven years are small projects of ten to 20MW in capacity. These will be absolutely essential to prove that the technology works and generate investor confidence.

I don't think we will see utility-scale projects of 100 to 200MW until sometime in the next decade. Offshore wind is different because we already have a 1.5GW project in the Bristol Channel and this is more advanced.

The other technology that's worth watching out for is floating wind, and at the moment the Wave Hub is being looked at as an area which could test this technology.