From his office in a converted Victorian schoolhouse, Neil Kermode can see little more than centuries-old stone buildings and narrow streets better suited to horse carts than Land Rovers. Yet Kermode, head of the European Marine Energy Centre in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, will tell you he can also see the future. Orkney, a collection of green, hilly islands where the North Sea collides with the Atlantic Ocean, has become a testing ground for wave and tidal power, technologies that will be instrumental in helping Scotland reach its goal of getting all its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. “The bit of alchemy of turning seawater into electricity has been done,” Kermode says as he gazes out at the busy harbor in Stromness, a 90-minute ferry ride from the Scottish mainland. “Now what we’ve got to do is to industrialize it and do it reliably.”
Kermode’s group, set up in 2003 with public money, is helping companies across Europe tap Scotland’s formidable tidal and wave power resources. Although marine energy is at least four years away from making power on a commercial scale, the government is hoping the industry will produce 1,600 megawatts by 2020, or about 46 percent of today’s output from Scotland’s two coal-fired plants.
A 10-minute drive up the coast from Stromness, Edinburgh-based Pelamis Wave Power is installing what look like 600-foot red-and-yellow snakes that bob on the surface of the water and generate power from the motion of the waves. Nearby, Finland’s Wello is launching the Penguin, a triangle-shaped generator 100 feet per side that will soon produce as much as a megawatt of power. In the same stretch of water, Edinburgh’s Aquamarine Power has the “Oyster,” a hinged flap the size of a barn door under the surface that pumps water into a turbine onshore. About 25 miles away off Orkney’s northeast coast, Atlantis Resources, based in London and Singapore, and an Irish company called OpenHydro both have turbines that are turned by tidal flows.
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who has set Europe’s most ambitious target for renewable energy, has pledged to “engineer the 21st century” using wind and waves, creating 130,000 jobs. Reaching that target, though, would be easier if the Conservative-led government in London were to grant his nation the rights to the seabed, Scottish officials say. Today, companies developing marine energy projects must pay rent to the Crown Estate, the body that has administered the monarchy’s assets in Scotland since 1832. All revenue goes to the U.K. Treasury in London. Salmond’s Scottish National Party in May won a second term to the Edinburgh legislature, reestablished in 1999 after a hiatus of three centuries. “It would be preposterous if the revenue from offshore renewable [projects] didn’t benefit the communities alongside them,” says Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s environment minister.
Industry executives and academics say Salmond’s vow to make Scotland the green energy powerhouse of Europe is a stretch. While government figures show that wind energy already contributes 17 percent of Scotland’s electricity, marine power may never live up to its potential, says Gordon Walkden, a professor of geosciences at the University of Aberdeen, the hub of the North Sea oil industry. “The question is whether it is affordable and realistic,” he says.
Salmond has said research in Orkney and the Pentland Firth, the stretch of water separating the 70-island archipelago from mainland Scotland, will help unlock £6 billion ($9.9 billion) of investment. To get things moving, the Orkney Islands Council is spending £14 million on port infrastructure in the archipelago, including piers that can accommodate power companies launching their equipment. “In terms of wave and tidal energy, what’s happening in Orkney now, the technology is there, it’s being developed,” says Peter Tipler, a consultant at energy advisory firm Xodus Group in Orkney.
A big selling point for Orkney is that it’s linked to Britain’s power grid, so electricity generated there can reach the national market without laying costly cables. The islands also have a 50-square-mile natural harbor called Scapa Flow, which Winston Churchill in 1940 ordered enclosed by seawalls after a German submarine sank a British warship in the area. On one side of the barrier—a long causeway linking several of the Orkney Islands—the sea is frothy with steady swells, evidence of the potential of the waters. On the other, it’s calm, a more reasonable place for the industry to build infrastructure and house equipment. “Scapa Flow,” says Stephen Hagan, who heads the Orkney Islands municipality, “is the jewel in our crown.”