The Writhing Sea
Kites, CSP, Photovoltaics, any one of these would be plenty; plenty; and to not even cast a glance at the colossal energy writhing in the sea.
The UK is battered with wild natural energy. And it’s a sad fact and another no brainer that, in the 1970s, the UK squandered a massive chance to take a world leadership in natural energy the way Germany has done.
The UK first nourished and then abandoned the ingenuity of some great British engineering, wilfully and absurdly cooking the books to deny the clear evidence. This is the story of Salter’s Duck.
In the 1970s, following the oil crisis, the UK government started a research programme into a range of renewables, particularly wave energy, and various designs were produced.
After a technological career including aircraft, rockets, the early hovercrafts, electronics and robot mechanics, Stephen Salter was Professor of Engineering Design at the University of Edinburgh. In 1974, he invented what became known as Salter’s Duck, arising from studies including those on a lavatory cistern (but nothing to do with Toilet Duck.) After extensive testing in wave tanks he had designed and built, he had a prototype of what was then the Edinburgh Duck built by 1976.
This illustration describes the process. The narrow end of the duck faces the waves, which make the ducks bob up and down with a nodding motion. This motion can be converted into mechanical energy with an overall efficiency of up to 90% of the energy of the waves (down to 50% in calmer water.) And there’s various ways of converting this energy.
Okay, it’s just an artist’s impression, but that’s not its fault! It can be seen here what’s happening, all the energy in the sea beyond has been absorbed by the Duck and converted into mechanical power, leaving the water behind it calm. You almost don’t have to do any sums, you can get a feel of how much energy could be harvested out of a few miles of ducks. Stephen Salter had done the sums, of course. He said:
The average 3-meter high Atlantic wave with a period of about 10 metres from crest to crest has a power of about 90 Kilowatts per meter width — enough electricity for 180 UK residents. Four hundred kilometres of the Scottish Atlantic sea front could contribute 20 to 40 Gigawatts.
250 miles of ducks in a row could yield 20-40 GW; one concentrated engineering effort – in a country that invented engineering – and a third to two-thirds of the energy for this island is generated. With such promise, this must have been a very exciting project to work on at the time.
Alas, in 1979, a change of government brought a big change of focus, and even the paltry sums that were spent on wave R&D programmes were cut off. Nuclear power was to be bought off the shelf, and soon there was even a perceived oil glut, strangely enough, so that was the end of the programme. But it had to be buried by an astonishing piece of destructive accountancy.
Five years of research on the programme had gone very well and the Duck was getting very close to mass production and deployment. Clive Grove-Palmer was a government engineer and had been a staunch and enthusiastic proponent of nuclear energy in his time at the UKAEA, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. Somewhat bizarrely, the government’s renewable energy programme was under the auspices of the UKAEA. Moving within the UKAEA, Grove-Palmer became project leader of the wave energy programme, and soon became an adherent and an authority on Stephen Salter’s engineering.
He vigorously campaigned for the deployment of the Duck, making the assertion that the cost of electrical generation would soon be driven down to an unbeatable 3.3p/kWh. But there were people who really didn’t like what he was saying.
In 1982, a government conference was set, a secret briefing, to discuss the future of wave power. To his outrage and astonishment, he hadn’t been invited to the meeting; the government were to examine and discuss wave energy without the head of the programme there.
It was immediately clear to him that the government had called the meeting for the purpose of ending the programme. It would have been necessary to exclude the engineer who could lay out the technical evidence that this new technology was ready to go and was a much better idea than nuclear energy on all counts. The programme was shut down in secret session.
Grove-Palmer took early retirement in disgust, and later said:
I resigned ... because they asked me to write the obituary of wave power. There was no way I could do that ... We were just ready to do the final year of development and then go to sea.
He became as vociferously anti-nuclear as he had been pro-nuclear and aghast that this ingenious piece of British engineering, which would efficiently harness the energy surging around Britain, had been killed off. Not even winning on price was enough against the forces that wanted the Duck dead.
The wave power team didn’t even see the report which had damned their work for many months. When the report came out, the true production figures of the Duck had been obscured by averaging the figures for all the wave power projects that were going on, and thus contrived the bloated figure of 8-12p/kWh.
They must have been fearful of the Duck, because they kept kicking it, kept cooking up lies about it. Next came a report about the Duck which massively underrated the performance of undersea cables; that had costed each Duck in a production run at the same cost as the prototype model; had overestimated the capital costs by a factor of 10. Decimal point in the wrong place, it’s easily done. It should have been concerning, though, that people in the nuclear business could make miscalculations to a factor of 10.
Up until 1982, wave power was a publically subsidised initiative, but wave energy research really existed on crumbs. 1980-81 had actually been the high water mark of government investment in renewables, which – under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Authority - invested £17.3m for all renewable energy projects. The context that public subsidy needs to be seen in is that, in the same year, £203m was spent on nuclear energy R&D. This is how it has always been for renewable energy.
If only £200 million had been spent on the Duck in one year, there could have been a lot less nuclear waste accumulated in the UK, which instead would have had a world-leading engineering sector and been a trailblazer for a way to clean energy. As more capacity was added, and the engineering developed, the costs would have continued to travel downwards. Salter wanted to build them out to Iceland, and the world would have been a somewhat better place if they had been.
Professor Stephen Salter, grandfather of wave power
Salter later said in this interview about marine power:
Our programme was in the hands of the UK nuclear agency. Our reports and numbers were deliberately altered. They wanted us to fail. The official who did most damage to us was then put in charge of public relations for the Dounreay nuclear reactor.And because the UK had good wave resources the world was told that if we can’t do it nobody can. (our emboldening.)
Professor Salter had to break up his team in 1987. The disappointment after what had been achieved must have been crushing. In a letter to the House of Lords committee on renewable energy, you can hear his despairing frustration when he writes:
We must not waste another 15 years and dissipate the high motivation of another generation of young engineers…
We must stop using grossly different assessment methods in a rat race between technologies at widely differing stages of their development. We must find a way of reporting accurate results to decision makers and have decision makers with enough technical knowledge to spot data massage if it occurs. I believe that this will be possible only if the control of renewable energy projects is completely removed from nuclear influences.
It seems like leaving the UKAEA to oversee the renewables programme was like leaving the fox in charge of the ducks. Once again, a great and clear idea was suppressed, once again a great liberator was hushed up, once more condemned by the simple means of falsifying evidence and by having control of the message.
Salter’s Duck is still the best design, and it’s waiting to be called into action one day. Soon there’ll be a printer that can print ducks, and the price will plummet some more. Maybe some plastic microducks can be designed, like the micro-CSP, just to get a few kW out of calmer water, like rivers. A toy version for use at bath time would shift a few units. And a vision of giant ducks comes to us, for the most ferocious storms, harvesting a huge amount of energy and protecting the coast from the storm by removing the energy from it.
The developers of devices have kept moving forward. Although the duck is the daddy with its 90% conversion rates, there’s plenty of other ideas around harvesting the power in the sea. There’s lots of different designs here, on this page of wave and marine energy in general. The page includes V Ryan's picture of a device based on Salter's Duck in some action, which we're thrilled to paste here in full working order:
The US Department of Energy have identified the north-western coast of the United States as one of the strongest wave-energy areas of the world. They calculate that wave energy could produce 40–70 kilowatts (kW) per metre of coast, with an average of about 1.6 Mw per 100 feet, a Gigawatt every 36 miles, which is distinctly less ambitious than Salter's plans for the Duck.
This link is about the European Marine Energy Centre which is located in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, and about othe Japanese company that’s working there. Japan has great potential for wave power on its Pacific Coast, and a history of research in this area going back to the 1960s. Devices are developing. There’s plenty going on in Australia, too, where there is also great potential.
China, India, South Korea, Russia, many countries have wave energy research going on. There’s a lot of activity Britain would have been right out there on by now, if the last 30 years had been spent developing the science of harvesting waves. Fools.
Pelamis are the first company to actually deliver wave energy generated electricity to the national grid, from its site in Scotland, using machines designed by Richard Yemm, who studied under Salter. Pelamis say there are only very few days per year that waves are too weak to generate electricity. The Pelamis is built to survive and writhes with the water.
Stephen Salter still remains convinced of the potential from marine power in general, and points out that you could run continents with this sort of power.
And particularly around Scotland, where Pelamis is deployed, there are places where the great power of the Atlantic Ocean is squeezed through tight places and is there for the taking. Such a place is the Pentland Firth, where the Atlantic surges between Scotland and Orkney in an immensely powerful tidal stream.
There I think we should build close-packed turbines in deep water.
At peak spring tides we are now looking at about 240 to 250 Gigawatts of power being dissipated as friction on the sea bed. We should be able to convert about a third of that into electricity. That’s about 80 Gigawatts—more than the whole of the UK uses. We could build up to this in chunks of 50 Megawatts.
This is just about Pentland Firth.
The seabed machines being developed for this seabed harvesting include the Oyster, developed by Aquamarine Power, and they have Stephen Salter, now called the grandfather of wave power on the team.
Image: Aquamarine Power
An Oyster is fixed to the seabed and is driven back and forth with the waves. This energy is captured as high-pressure water which is pumped onshore where it drives a turbine to generate electricity. It’s definitely not the prettiest thing, but it doesn’t matter.
Stephen Salter keeps working, on all sorts of things (more in other notes.) He’s got a strong sense of the trouble we’re in and the need to do something.
ScottishPower Renewables (SPR) are installing a demonstration array in the tight Sound of Jura, possibly using 10 of these machines:
These are 1 MW Andritz Hydro Hammerfest tidal turbines. They look simple and cheap, a few thousand of these can be readily imagined, and no one is going to complain about their view being spoiled.
Anyway, 40GW here, 80GW there, if Scotland really went for it they could be harvesting truly enormous amounts of energy, perhaps enough for Western Europe, certainly enough to be a natural power powerhouse. 40GW here, potentially GWs anywhere. It would be exciting to see what Kitegen could achieve given a few lively square kilometres of, say, the Isle of Harris to play with; they’d have a 1,600 metre diameter turbine whizzing around.
The problem would be getting all the energy that’s around to where it’s needed, and the solution is to build some much needed infrastructure. If anything could justify public funding, it’s this, and then what Desertec are talking about can really happen . . . bang, just get the energy issue, the pollution issue, the security issue, all dispensed with and out of the way in one huge effort, as if it’s wartime, which it probably really is if we knew it. Create an abundance. All it takes is some engineering. Bang, there it is, all the energy you want, and more being added at the micro level all the time.
It is a bold move, but then again, it’s not, because the happy outcomes are completely predictable. And because the necessary sums are going to be spent – and probably wasted – anyway.
With nuclear building, it seems very predictable that a lot of the costs are going to turn out to be much higher than predicted. It’s claimed here:
In assessing the economics of nuclear power, decommissioning and waste disposal costs are fully taken into account.
But how can they be fully taken into account if the costs are an ever evolving picture? And they are.
This is what The Telegraph tells us here about the UK’s latest wave of nuclear building. Maybe £17bn of public subsidy!
Is this potential £17bn part of the Kwh calculations of the price of the energy? We don’t know. But £17bn! And would that be the end of it? £17bn, we imagine, would easily be enough to extract 80GW out of Pentland Firth and build power transmission lines out to the Western Isles to collect GigaWattage from the wild forces there. Or build maybe 250 Kitegen parks, farms and plants, which would be much more than anyone needed, and this just from the sum of a feared public subsidy to a private company. Why aren’t we allowed to vote to say where our immorally taken taxes go to? Would people choose to make such uses of £17bn if they had the full story?