Tartan wave power wets firms' interest on a surprise roll to success power fiasco makes for good PR

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The Independent Online
INTERNATIONAL interest in tapping the unruly energy of the oceans received an unexpected boost from the sinking of the world's first offshore wave power station off the north of Scotland last week.

The Inverness company which developed the Osprey generator has received more than 20 inquiries from companies interested in taking up its product since the 75 foot-high structure foundered on Monday. The structure had survived less than three weeks of its planned 25-year lifespan.

This bizarre response to what the father of wave energy calls "An embarrassing PR cock-up" is the latest twist in the stormy history of Britain's attempts to wrest power from the sea.

Blessed with some of the world's greatest wave power resources - enough, at least in theory, to meet half its electricity needs - it has turned from embracing to spurning the pollution-free potential that batters its shores.

Twenty years ago the then Labour Government described wave power as the "most attractive" of Britain's renewable sources of energy and poured millions of pounds into developing it. But its Conservative successors closed down the research programme because, it is alleged, it posed a threat to the expansion of nuclear power.

Not a single penny of direct Government money was used to build the pounds 3.5 million Osprey generator, which was financed instead by the European Union, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and a consortium of companies, including, ironically, AEA Technology, owners of the Dounreay fast-speed nuclear reactor, abandoned last year after a spending of pounds 4 billion of taxpayers' funds.

The generator, which was supposed to supply an average of 2 megawatts of energy, enough to power 2,000 homes, was moored some 300 yards off Dounreay on the North Scottish coast. It was to make use of the defunct atomic reaction connection to the National Grid.

Anchored to the seabed by nine huge ballast tanks filled with sand, the generator was designed to act like a large cave with blow holes. As the waves thundered every ten seconds into the jaws of the artificial cave - the size of 16 double-decker buses - they would compress the air, forcing it out through funnels on the top of the structure and drive turbines attached to them. As each wave subsided, air would be sucked back into the "cave" turning the turbines.

Mr Allan Thomson, managing director of Applied Research and Technology, the firm that developed the generator, admits that two of the ballast tanks were found to be damaged before it was towed into position on 6 August. The sea had then worked on the faults, causing the superstructure to sink.

Mr Thomson regards the fiasco as "a minor setback". He added: "The news has generated worldwide interest in the Osprey."

He says that a replacement will be installed off Dounreay early next spring and will be feeding electricity into the national grid by late summer.

Professor Stephen Salter of Edinburgh University, the father of wave power is similarly sanguine. He describes the sinking as a "great embarrassing PR cock-up, but not very serious technically." He added: "We will get over it. Steam engines blew up but that did not stop the development of steam power."

It was Professor Salter who first worked out a way of harnessing wave energy, while in bed with 'flu during the 1973-74 oil crisis. His concept offered plentiful, clean energy which benefited sea life by calming the force of the waves and provided work for Britain's ailing shipyards. For eight years, the research funds flowed and Professor Salter and his team tested more than 200 devices.

Funding was abruptly cut off in 1982 and there is evidence that wave power was sabotaged by Government bodies committed to nuclear power. The renewable engergy research programme was controlled by the Energy Techology Support Unit (ETSU) which was part of the UK Atomic Energy Authority and responsible to the pro-nuclear Department of Energy.

As wave power began to compete with nuclear power, ETSU and its controlling bodies turned against it. Professor Salter produced detailed evidence to show that the costs and technical difficulties of wave power were distorted and exaggerated.

In 1989 the Government announced a new study into wave power - but entrusted it to ETSU. In 1992 the body reported it "did not see any justification for further significant public research and development expenditure" on offshore energy devices.