Time for a fresh start on funding to develop wave and tidal energy

Dee Nunn argues that government funding for wave and tidal energy development has leveraged private sector investment and created employment. Now a new joined-up funding approach is needed.

As an island nation, the UK has some of the best wave and tidal energy resources in the world, capable of generating up to 20% of our electricity needs in the decades ahead, offsetting 30 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year.
We already have full-scale devices operating in the water, capable of harnessing the immense power of the sea and turning it into clean electricity. Britain is a world leader in these exciting technologies, but the marine energy industry is still at a relatively early stage of development, so we need to ensure that we capitalise on our global lead. We have an enormous opportunity to create thousands of jobs and attract billions in investment, as well as increasing the security of our nation’s energy supply by harvesting a home-grown source.
Every year, towards the end of February, the marine energy sector comes together to take stock and look ahead at an event organised by RenewableUK. Our wave & tidal conference provides a forum for developers, investors, policy maker, academics and all those involved in the sector, not only in the UK but also from around the world, to exchange ideas and catch up on the latest technological developments, as well as discussing policy .
This year there was much to celebrate, such as work commencing on the world’s first  project to install a full-scale series of tidal generators, in the waters between Orkney and Caithness, signalling a step up from individual devices to  pilot arrays (rather like building a wind farm rather than just installing a single turbine).  We’ve seen the installation of the first community-owned tidal turbine off the Shetland islands, and a wave energy testing centre off the Cornish coast is now fully booked, with the first test of the first device at this site now complete.
It’s no secret that the last few months haven’t been easy, with some companies leaving the sector or downsizing, but at this year’s annual industry gathering, which took place in Edinburgh, there was a mood of optimism following a key announcement by a government minister.
During his keynote speech, the Scottish energy minister Fergus Ewing confirmed that the Scottish Government is to invest £14.3 million in a new development body, Wave Energy Scotland, to help secure the industry’s future. Ewing described it as “the biggest technology development programme the wave sector has ever seen”.
This announcement got the conference off to a buoyant start, and there was much more food for thought to come. A major report was unveiled at the event, written by the body which advises the government on how on how to ensure that the industry realises its enormous potential, the Marine Energy Programme Board. It amounts to a blueprint for the road ahead, focussing on the way funding is allocated to the wave and tidal energy sector.
The report says that British companies are well-placed to capture £76 billion of a global market by 2050. Companies surveyed by RenewableUK for the report have so far spent nearly £450 million in the UK’s marine energy supply chain.  Importantly, on average, the companies surveyed had leveraged around £7 of privately sourced money for each £1 of public funding they received.  This investment supports around 1,700 people working in the wave and tidal energy sector, and the industry has the potential to support up to 20,000 jobs in the next decade with the right support for growth.
However, the report says that to maintain the UK’s global lead, and become fully commercialised industries, wave and tidal energy need sustained and consistent practical and financial support from governments at all levels. The study urges the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments and Northern Ireland executive to work with the MEPB to provide a joint vision of the role of marine energy out to 2030 and beyond, together with a suitably funded strategy to commercialise wave and tidal technologies. The study warns that without a unified approach, there is a risk of duplication of effort and important measures falling between the gaps. We need joined-up thinking to make this work.
Just look at the size of the prize. The report shows that with our excellent maritime heritage, British supply chain companies are well placed to build the UK’s wave and tidal projects as they grow, as well as capturing a significant proportion of the export market in Europe and beyond to countries such as Canada, South Korea and Japan. So a truly global opportunity is well within our grasp as we seek to maximise the benefits of developing the UK’s marine energy sector and its burgeoning supply chain. We all need to be aware of that opportunity and ensure that we make the most of it.

Dee Nunn
Wave & tidal development manager