Wave energy needs coherent strategy to succeed

Waves approaching the shoreline. Credit: Mario Guti

Access to funding, a coherent long-term strategy and greater collaboration are required for wave power to play a part in the UK’s future energy mix, says a new report.

Wave power has long been heralded for its potential to play a central role in delivering low-carbon, secure energy for the UK.

However, despite £200m of public funds being invested in research, development and demonstration (RD&D) since 2000 the technology has yet to reach commercialisation and be widely deployed in the UK.

Lessons learned

In the report University of Strathclyde and Imperial College London researchers highlight key factors behind the failure of wave power technology to mature over the past 15 years, including a:

  • Poor understanding of the scale of the wave energy innovation challenge,
  • Premature emphasis on array-scale commercialisation from both government and industry,
  • Fast changing, complex and poorly coordinated energy innovation policy landscape,
  • Lack of lesson sharing between technology developers, and
  • Lack of test facilities to enable part-scale prototype testing.

However, they conclude lessons learned from this experience have led to a major reconfiguration of support for UK wave energy innovation, including the redesign of government RD&D programmes (e.g. Wave Energy Scotland), new networks to promote knowledge exchange and the addition of new world-class test facilities (e.g. FloWaveTT).

The report’s authors say these changes mean the UK is much better placed to deliver a commercial wave energy device but warn success is threatened by wider political developments, not least Brexit and its impact on innovation funding and international collaboration.

They make 10 policy recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the UK’s future support for wave energy innovation, including:

  • Retaining access to EU research & development funding post-Brexit,
  • Developing a long-term wave energy strategy, especially for Scotland,
  • Improving coordination of research & development support within and across government,
  • Avoiding competition for subsidies with more established technologies, such as offshore wind and tidal stream, and
  • Support the formation of niche market for wave energy deployment (e.g. off-grid islands).

Dr Matthew Hannon, Chancellor’s Fellow of Technology and Innovation in the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at Strathclyde Business School, said: “The report’s findings are aimed primarily at government and industry in a bid to help improve the effectiveness of future wave energy innovation support in the UK and accelerate the technology’s journey towards commercialisation.”

Professor Jim Skea, Chair in Sustainable Energy in the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, said: “Following the Paris climate agreement there is a critical need to improve our understanding of how to accelerate low-carbon energy innovation in the most effective manner possible.

The report points towards two weakness in wave innovation that can be remedied: first the lack of convergence on a dominant design that has been the key to success for other renewable technologies and, second, fragmentation of support across many overlapping schemes.”

A study by the Carbon Trust estimates the energy that could practically and economically be extracted from UK waters is between 32 and 42 TWh per year which equates to an installed capacity of roughly 10 to 13 GW.

The report was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Strathclyde Business School and the International Public Policy Institute.