Power from the tides off the Shetland Islands
Pounding and surging relentlessly, the seas of Yell Sound, off the Shetland Islands, are a formidable reminder of the
raw power of the earth's natural forces. Tidal current, waves, wind, sun and soil; the potential for renewable energy
Yet, since a burst of enthusiasm in the 1970s, low energy prices and a lack of political will have made progress towards meeting more of the country's energy needs from renewables painfully slow.
By cruel irony, one of the renewables sector's biggest outputs so far has been paperwork, with myriad reports both on
the potential for development and, in the case of onshore wind farms, in planning permission battles. Despite growing
government interest and some tangible developments, like the UK's first offshore wind turbines off the Northumberland
coast at Blyth, many in the sector are frustrated at the rate of progress.
But now, 110ft down on the Yell Sound seabed, the performance of a 180-ton plane-like structure called Stingray has raised theprospect of the UK carving out a role as a world leader in tidal stream energy. The prospect of generating electricity from tidal current has created something of a race between companies in different parts of the UK.
In September at Yell Sound, Stingray became the first commercial-sized tidal device ever to be installed offshore and
successfully generate electricity, according to its makers. During a week-long test programme it generated
electricity at a steady, repeatable output of about 45 kW, peaking at 250kW. Since then, its Northumberland-based
makers, The Engineering Business, retrieved it for further development. Their goal is a 5 MW farm of seabed Stingrays
Stingray, which generates electricity from the oscillatory movement of hydroplanes driven by flowing tidal current, has keen support from Brian Wilson, energy minister, a renewables champion who believes tidal energy has great potential. "All too often, clever British ideas have not manifested into the manufacture and finally the distribution of the final product. I am determined not to let this happen again," he told the Commons when he announced a £ 1.1 mm Department of Trade and Industry grant for Stingray.
Renewables UK, the government body Mr Wilson launched to help British manufacturers capitalise on the worldwide
sustainable energy market, estimates that even a small share of the 2020 potential £ 500 bn-£ 1,500 bn
global renewables market could mean a £ 1 bn-a-year industry for UK manufacturers. In north-east England the
offshore sector, spawned from the region's shipbuilding heritage and nourished by the North Sea oil and gas sector,
is keenly interested in renewables' commercial potential.
Projects are burgeoning in the region, including an urban wind farm on Teesside, run by Corus and Amec Wind, and the New and Renewable Energy Centre, a £ 12 mm research and development centre with large wave energy test facilities being developed at Blyth.
Yet there is still great scepticism over whether the government's national target of getting 10 % of the UK's
electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2010 can be met. The Engineering Business, founded by Newcastle
University agricultural engineering graduates to create offshore and seabed equipment, believes practical action is
now vital. "What we need is Watts," says Tony Trapp, managing director.
But trailblazing is not cheap. EB, an £ 8 mm annual turnover business, has spent nearly £ 1 mm of company funds on Stingray. It is now seeking more DTI support and possibly commercial backing. Its scientists have shown that they can generate power from the tides. For their next trick they must prove they can generate profits from them too.