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Brexit may divert power from these ocean energy advances

As Scotland moves ahead with bringing tidal energy from an emerging technology to a commercial reality, Brexit could shake up the ocean power industry. To end a two-part series on advances in this field, Hari Sreenivasan heads to an ocean energy lab and talks about uncertain economic and political futures.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Last night we took you to the largest planned tidal energy project in the world, harnessing the power in the fast moving waters off the northern coast of Scotland. But Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom, and it now faces the coming separation of the UK from the European Union – I'm talking about Brexit. Will Scotland be able to continue turning tidal energy from an intriguing concept to commercial reality? Here's part two of our report.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    On a brisk November morning, I headed into the waters around the Orkney islands, an archipelago off the coast of northern Scotland. I'm with a team from the European Marine Energy Centre or EMEC, a research and testing facility that's based here.

    I'm also with a Spanish renewable energy company that's testing its new project here in Orkney. This device generates power from the tides.

  • PABLO MANSILLA:

    We have already produced energy with this platform.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Pablo Mansilla is a project manager with Magallanes Renovables, the company that developed this device. He took me aboard to get a closer look.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Why come here?

  • PABLO MANSILLA:

    We are coming here because this is the most important place to test this energy.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The floating deck is about 150 feet long and when it is in place it will be tethered to the seafloor with chains. The tides rush through two giant underwater turbines beneath the deck and generate energy.

    The device was towed more than 1,300 miles from spain and soon will be connected to the grid at EMEC's test site in Orkney for a year.

  • PABLO MANSILLA:

    We want to validate this technology, to optimize our platform and try to reach to the commercial point and start selling platforms.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Mansilla took me inside, where electrical convertors transform the power generated from the tides to a standard voltage before sending it to the power grid on shore.

    When it's operating there won't be anyone onboard; it can all be monitored and controlled remotely from anywhere.

  • PABLO MANSILLA:

    This is our control system, we can check everything from Spain.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So 24/7 this is all sending information in real time.

  • PABLO MANSILLA:

    Yeah, yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    EMEC has tested more than 30 ocean energy devices, including this one, which recently generated enough energy for about 830 homes in a year-long test. Manufactured by a Scottish tidal energy developer, it looks like its moving but really it's just the tides rushing by. Like the Magallanes device, it's tethered to stay in place, while turbines underneath gather energy from the moving water.

    Lisa mackenzie is EMC's marketing manager. She says that in addition to having a testing site for devices that create power from tides, emec also has a site to test wave energy.

  • LISA MACKENZIE:

    Orkney is very unique because it has both of these resources very close together.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Here at Billia Croo, waves have been measured at nearly 60 feet high. More than a mile offshore, a Finnish company is testing a device that captures energy from the movement of these waves. It then feeds that energy via underwater cable back into the national grid.

  • LISA MACKENZIE:

    It's really important to do the computer modelling and to do the the tank testing and get a lot of the issues ironed out as much as possible at scale. But you can not understand how a technology is going to interact in the real sea environment at full scale until it has been deployed.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    EMEC, Which is a nonprofit, was established in 2003 and has received about $44 million in public funding, including from the European Union and the UK and Scottish governments. It has been self-sufficient since 2011, with companies paying to use its facilities.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But it still does receive EU grant-funded projects. In fact, the cost of Magallanes' year-long test at EMEC is being subsidized by EU funding.

    So while tides and waves here may be strong and certain, the political winds are anything but. The United Kingdom's Brexit is set for march, after which Scotland will no longer be part of the EU. And the fate of EU funded projects in Britain is uncertain.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    I mean your a European funded agency in the first place. What happens next year?

  • LISA MACKENZIE:

    So we're called the European Marine Energy Centre. But we see ourselves as very much a global company. And whatever happens with Brexit, and at the moment we don't know what that will be. That's not going to stop us working with European and global companies.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Paul Wheelhouse is the scottish minister for energy, connectivity, and the islands and a member of the ruling scottish national party, which did not support Brexit.

  • PAUL WHEELHOUSE:

    We are regardless of some of the Brexit-teers views on this. We will always be part of the European continent. Geography doesn't change and we have a huge share of Europe's wave energy, tidal energy and offshore wind and onshore wind potential.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We spoke with Wheelhouse at a recent conference on ocean energy in Edinburgh. As Brexit approaches, he warns the UK should not repeat the mistake that it made in the 1980s with wind energy.

  • PAUL WHEELHOUSE:

    The industry was being led by academia in Scotland and the rest of UK and indeed the first thing some of the first onshore turbines in the world were trialed in Orkney and then we dropped the ball because it was a dash for gas and it was more politically expedient to push for a short term hit an agenda and neglected the long term development of a technology that had huge potential.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Today, the wind energy industry is dominated by Danish, Chinese, German, and Spanish companies.

  • PAUL WHEELHOUSE:

    So we're saying to the UK government please desperately do not drop the ball again.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And EMEC in Orkney is not the only investment the Scottish and UK governments have made in developing the ecosystem around marine energy.

    David Ingram is a engineering professor at the University of Edinburgh, and the director of the Flowave Ocean Energy Research facility.

    This 634,000 gallon tank was funded in part by the UK government and opened in 2014.

    It's a place where you can rent a stormy sea. Pick the size of the wave or force of the tide and test whatever you like.

  • DAVID INGRAM:

    So if I want to have a 200 year storm, I can have 200 year storm conditions every 15 minutes. If I go to the ocean and I want a 200 year storm I might have to wait 300 years for that 200 year storm to come along

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    On the day we visited, this small scale version of a wave power device was being put through the equivalent of massive swells by a Swedish company.

  • DAVID INGRAM:

    It's much cheaper for you to bring a model here from Australia and test it or from Sweden and test it than it is to to replicate this facility.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Ingram says research like this around emerging technology is only possible with government assistance.

  • DAVID INGRAM:

    You get to the point where there needs to be national support for something to happen at a large scale and if the government don't want to provide that support then that technology goes to somewhere where it can, where the support can be found.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    adding to the uncertainty around Brexit, Scotland is not the only government racing to develop these new technologies.

    Representatives from all over Europe were at the marine energy conference in Edinburgh. And the United States was represented as well. Tim ramsey is the program manager for the u-s department of energy's marine and hydrokinetic program.

  • TIM RAMSEY:

    We're learning as much as we can from from our counterparts over here in the UK.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Ramsey's office distributes about $70 million dollars a year in grants for marine energy, with US Department of Energy support, tidal devices have been tested in Maine and New York.

    The Department of Energy is also helping build a 50 million dollar wave testing site on the coast of oregon. Modeled on facilities like EMEC, it will be able to test utility-scale devices.

    Ramsey thinks American companies still have a chance to catch up to the Europeans.

  • TIM RAMSEY:

    We're not as far along as them but they're not that far out in front of us. We can still catch and then we can still be the world leaders in this space When you look across the country and the resources that we do have it spans it all. We have a great tidal resource, a great wave resource,// We have the supply chain // I think we'd be missing out on a big opportunity if we don't take advantage of that.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But despite the investment there are still questions as to whether or not developing technologies, like tidal energy, can compete with existing fossil fuels and more established renewable energy technologies like wind and solar.

    Tim Cornelius is the CEO of Simec Atlantis Energy, which is developing the meygen project, the largest planned tidal array in the world in northern Scotland.

  • TIM CORNELIUS:

    Tidal power is where wind and solar was 15 years ago. The world's best resources closest to distribution points are yet to be developed.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Cornelius hopes that projects like Meygen will prove that commercial scale tidal energy is feasible. As the sun sets and the moon pulls these tides to rush by at 11 miles per hour spinning underwater turbines are helping keep the lights on.

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