The tide turns

By Rob Edwards WAVE power is finally about to take off. After neglecting this source of renewable energy for the past 16 years, the British government is seriously considering backing a clutch of technologies for turning wave energy into electricity after being told that they are now economically viable. Britain’s state-funded research programme into wave power was cancelled, controversially, in 1982. The government claimed that waves were an uneconomic source of energy, but the scientists involved accused ministers of sabotaging its prospects to protect nuclear power. The inventors of the six available devices for harnessing wave energy—based in Scotland, Ireland, Sweden and Korea—were forced to find alternative funding from industry and the European Commission to develop their technologies. Now Tom Thorpe, the government’s leading adviser on wave power, has told the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) that three of the six devices have been improved to the extent that they can generate electricity for under six pence per kilowatt-hour—the cost below which energy production becomes competitive. This assumes a discount rate—which banks use to gauge the risk of an investment—of 15 per cent. He says that one device, the “nodding duck” invented by Stephen Salter at the University of Edinburgh, can produce power by bobbing up and down with the waves for as little as 2.6 p/kWh. This compares with about 2.5 p/kWh for electricity from a new gas-fired power station and 4.5 p/kWh from a nuclear power station (see Figure), according to Gordon MacKerron from the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University. Thorpe, who is a consultant with AEA Technology at Culham in Oxfordshire and has advised the government on wave power since 1989, unveiled his results at a government seminar on renewable energy from marine sources in London this week. He said that efficient new designs and technological breakthroughs had reduced the average cost of wave power, which is now ten times lower than it was in 1982. “Wave energy is already economically competitive in niche markets,” he argued. Backing from industry was already increasing, he said. The findings have been submitted to the DTI as part of a review of renewable energy policy due to be completed within the next two months. In order to cut carbon dioxide emissions, the government is committed to producing ten per cent of Britain’s electricity from renewable sources by 2010. Thorpe’s advice makes it likely that wave power will be included in any new government scheme to promote renewable energy or in the existing nonfossil fuel obligation, which subsidises selected power sources. John Battle, the minister for science, energy and industry, regards Thorpe’s conclusions as very encouraging. “I will ask officials to report to me with positive and practical proposals to see what we can go for to enable wave power to break in as a source of renewable energy,
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