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Saudi Arabia in the North Sea

The chilly waters of northern Scotland have
become the testing ground for the next generation
of green energy. If the engineers can pull it off.

BY DAWN STOVER-JULY 21, 2015

The tides that tear through the Pentland Firth are
among the fastest in the world.

The currents, which pass through the 6-mile-wide strait between the
Scottish mainland and the Orkney Islands and connect the North Sea to the
Atlantic Ocean, rip through at more than 11 miles per hour. It is here, in

these chilly gray-blue waters, that Scotland hopes to find its energy future
— not in oil beneath the ocean floor, but by harnessing the power of the
waters themselves.

This ought to be one of the world’s best sites for tidal-power development,
thanks to the speed of the currents, the not-too-deep seafloor, and the nottoo-far distance from the country’s energy grid. In 2006, Alex Salmond, who
would later go on to become Scotland’s fourth first minister, dubbed the
stretch of ocean “the Saudi Arabia of tidal power.” In theory, the Pentland
Firth alone could generate almost half the electricity currently consumed in
Scotland, according to a study led by Oxford University researchers.
If, that is, the engineers could figure out how to pull it off.

Over the next two years, MeyGen, the company behind a trailblazing
project to harness the potential of the Pentland Firth’s turbulent waters,
plans to install four turbines on the seafloor. Like modern wind turbines, but
driven by water rather than air, the array (as the cluster of turbines is
called) will churn with the clockwork rhythm of the tides. And if all goes
well, the array could expand to as many as 269 turbines, making it the
world’s largest tidal-stream energy project. To a large degree, the future of
tidal power — one of the most promising, but also one of the most quixotic
energy sources — is riding on the success of these ambitious plans. By
2016, MeyGen expects to start sending power from the turbines to the

onshore grid. Electricity generation could ultimately grow to a capacity of
almost 400 megawatts — enough to power 175,000 Scottish homes,
according to MeyGen.

Humans have been capturing energy from the tides since at least the mid1800s. They trapped water behind dams and released it through water
wheels that used the energy to turn grain-grinding millstones. But despite
its long history, tidal power never became a major part of the world’s
energy mix. Today, it accounts for less than 0.001 percent of the global
energy supply. It remains one of the most challenging forms of renewable
energy, not just because of the difficulty of operating and maintaining
equipment in unforgiving conditions — working underwater is tricky and
expensive — but also because of concerns about impacts on marine life and
industries such as fishing and shipping. Nevertheless, interest and
investment have surged in recent years, in large part because of concerns
about climate change.
It’s easy to see the appeal of tidal power. It has a carbon footprint
comparable to that of wind power, but with a couple of major advantages:
The turbines are hidden beneath the waves, where they can’t spoil any
views, and the tides are far more predictable than wind. As the water
moves, it turns turbines that produce power. The more water passing
through the turbines in a given period of time, the more power that can be
generated.

But like the wind industry a few decades ago, tidal-stream development is
going through some growing pains. Just as solar power capacity has
recently exploded — growing more than tenfold since 2000 — after years of
slow evolution as technology improved and costs went down, tidal energy
could follow a similar path to become a major source of green power.
The first commercial tidal-power station was built on the Rance River in
France more than 50 years ago, and now more than a half-dozen
commercial tidal-power stations are in operation, including a 254-megawatt
one in South Korea that came online in 2011. The 1,320-megawatt-capacity
Incheon Tidal Power Station, currently under construction in South Korea,
will be the world’s biggest when it is completed in 2017.

These tidal-power stations, however, use a different, more mature
technology than the projects planned for Scotland’s coastline. While the
MeyGen project will plant turbines on the ocean floor in the path of fastrunning tides, the French and South Korean projects instead use a dam-like
barrage built across a river, estuary, bay, or artificial lake. These bodies of
water fill as the tide rises and then release water through hydropower
turbines when the tide falls, to generate electricity.

The United Kingdom is the world’s leader in the cutting-edge tidal-stream
technology. The island nation sees not only an opportunity to exploit its own
abundant tidal resources, but also a chance to capture a big share of the

potential world market for marine-energy technology. Those hopes are now
pinned on MeyGen’s Inner Sound project, the biggest of nine tidal-power
projects planned for the Pentland Firth and Orkney Waters Marine Energy
Park, one of two such parks established during the past three years in the
United Kingdom. The project is “still at an early stage of
development,” according to the company, and will continue to unfold only if
each step in its phased approach is successful.
Still, tidal-energy projects could help the U.K. meet its European Union
mandate of generating 15 percent of its electricity from renewables by
2020. The government estimates that wave and tidal-stream energy
combined could eventually provide as much as 20 percent of the U.K.’s
electricity. By the end of 2013, though, the U.K.’s total installed capacity of
both wave and tidal energy was a mere 7.2 megawatts.
Energy development in the Pentland Firth is still in its infancy, and tidalpower projects there — and elsewhere — have some major obstacles to
overcome. Although prototypes of tidal-stream turbines have been
deployed, development has proceeded in ebbs and flows, and the
technology has yet to be demonstrated on a fully commercial scale. In the
United States in 2012, Verdant Power received the country’s first
commercial tidal-power license from the Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission to construct a pilot project in New York City’s East River, which
connects Long Island Sound with the Atlantic Ocean. Verdant has

permission to install up to 30 of its fifth-generation tidal-stream turbines,
with a total generating capacity of about 1 megawatt, beginning this year.

As with most new technologies, the technical challenges have been greater
than initially expected. Dozens of turbine designs are vying for attention,
but no clear victor — one proven to be reliable, durable, efficient, and costeffective — has yet emerged.

There are high capital costs for such a project, and there are many
uncertainties about whether turbines can withstand harsh conditions
without breaking or corroding. When Verdant installed two of its firstgeneration turbines in New York’s East River in 2006 for a demonstration
project, the currents were stronger than expected and the blades failed
within a day.

Creating the onshore and offshore infrastructure necessary to connect
turbines to the grid is also a challenge. Laying cables and securing turbines
in Scotland’s frigid, fast-moving water won’t be easy.

As promising as tidal-stream power is, it remains costly and will require
government support to succeed, even at sites with the world’s best tidalenergy resources. Some of the current U.K. support comes in the form of
direct funding, as with the MeyGen project. Some of it comes as research
and development support for tidal-power developers. And then there’s

the Saltire Prize, 10 million pounds from the Scottish government that will
go to “the individual, team or organisation that achieves the greatest
volume of electrical output over the set minimum hurdle of 100 gigawatt
hours over a continuous two year period, using only the power of the sea,”
according to the prize’s website. MeyGen is one of four contestants vying
for the prize, which will be awarded in July 2017. “It’s a tough challenge, but
we are in it to win it,” MeyGen CEO Dan Pearson says.

If tidal-stream energy cannot succeed in Scotland, which not only has
strong tides but also strong government support for clean energy, it’s
unlikely to succeed elsewhere. But if the MeyGen project manages to
dispatch power to the grid without any major problems, that would send a
strong signal to investors, utilities, and politicians that tidal power can join
the growing portfolio of viable renewable energy sources. Says Pearson:
“We are fully aware of how much the sector is counting on our success.”

Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images
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