Store Energy in a Hole in the Ground

I had this idea several years ago….really should have acted upon it!  Although the calculations I did at the time made it seem pretty impractical.   Holes 100’s of meters deep for only a few kWh of electricity storage.  Didn’t think of using compressed air though….  good luck to them!

4GW of UK Gas Power on Standby

According to Professor Jonathan SternOxford Institute for Energy Studies, the lights aren’t going out, and Russia doesn’t own the switch.  Prof Stern claims that the UK currently has around 4GW of gas powered generating capacity on standby, as it isn’t profitable to run all of it.  Gas power kicks in at times of peak demand, when electricity spot prices are higher.  As old generating capacity gradually goes offline over the next decade or so, and the supply-demand gap narrows, our existing gas generating capacity will come online more frequently, and if it appears to be nearing capacity, we will gradually build more.  No need to panic.

Across the country, wind power output varies by less than 5% an hour, and the trend (to continue falling, or start to rise again) is accurately predicted by weather forecasters.  This gives ample time for gas power stations to fire up, keeping the lights on.  No repeat of the Californian energy crisis here, is the message given by Prof Stern.  To borrow his conclusion, “wind and gas may not be the best possible option, but it is far from the worst in relation to costs and carbon emissions“.

Read his letter to the Guardian here:

Glaxo Denied

GlaxoSmithKline, the world’s 4th largest pharmaceuticals company, has been denied permission to install 15  Swan Tidal Turbines at the entrance to the Montrose Basin in east central Scotland.  How is this a positive sustainability story you may ask…?  Well, while it is arguable that GSK’s application to Marine Scotland could have had a more positive outcome, I would counter that the story is positive for the following reasons.

  • The fact that major companies now believe in marine energy is fantastic, and will undoubtedly help generate investor interest in the technology.
  • The Montrose Basin is an extremely important site for birds and marine wildlife, and ultimately one of the key drivers for shifting from fossil fuels to renewables is to protect such habitats.  There would be more than a touch of irony if, for example, wind turbines installed at the North Pole made the area unsuitable for polar bears.  There are plenty of alternative locations for tidal and wind turbines.

Read the full story here

Whisky waste meets a profitable end…

Apologies for the lack of posts recently!  Lots going on with moving house, working on my copywriting business, and working towards my parallel career goal of becoming a mountain leader!  Anyway, I thought it was worth finding time to highlight the successful completion of the biomass plant in Rothes, which uses the waste products of whisky distilling, a major industry in the area, to generate heat and power.  This is a fantastic example of how waste can be put to good use, and in my opinion is by far and away one of the most worthy CHP plants to receive ROC’s:   The plant is not burning virgin timber (under normal circumstances), putting up timber and food prices, but is using an erstwhile waste product to generate energy and animal feed!  Read more here –

Masdar City: A Rising Star

Over the last decade several attempts have been made to design and build sustainable, zero-carbon, carbon-neutral or self-sufficient cities.  The Eden Project in Cornwall aimed to show how a self-contained ecosystem could be created; Dongtan on Chongming Island and Huangbaiyu in Liaoning Province, China, were both intended to demonstrate how to create and run sustainable cities – cities which require minimal inputs of energy, water and food, and produce minimal outputs of heat, waste and pollution.  Each of these projects has been established on the back of commendable goals, but they have also, to a certain extent, failed to meet these goals.  The Eden Project serves many worthwhile purposes – growing and preserving hundreds of rare plant species, educating schoolchildren and the public about conservation and sustainability, demonstrating the principles behind maintaining a “spaceship Earth” (the theory that the Earth is like a spaceship, with extremely limited resources which must be recycled) – but it has not succeeded in being completely self-sufficient:  Water, food and electricity are brought in, and waste is removed.  Dongtan and Huangbaiyu have been criticized for failing to adhere to their own construction principles, being delayed, running over budget, and have both been likened to Potemkin villages; dysfunctional developments built to impress and to make a point, rather than to meet their inhabitants’ needs.

But a new star is rising in the east (although it happens to be a little over 2,500km west of Dongtan); the city of Masdar in the United Arab Emirates.  Will Masdar have the answers that the critics perhaps don’t want to hear?  Will its carbon-neutral goal (downgraded from “zero-carbon”) be achieved?  Will wise men be drawn towards its environmentally-friendly light?


Masdar City from the air.

Far be it from me, however, to judge any of these projects:  They were all borne out of commendable ambitions, and to unduly criticise them would be akin to criticising a charity that fed a million refugees when it set out to feed two million.  It is better to set ambitious targets and fall short than to set facile ones which require little effort.

As models for sustainability these developments may not be relevant in many parts of the world, places where poverty is rife and funding would be impossible, where a vastly different climate demands an antithesis in design principles (to ensure warmth rather than promote cooling), or where overcrowding would not permit the use of acres of desert for solar and wind farms.  What these projects can do for us, however, is to test the water, to demonstrate just how much can be done, and to provide a medium upon which to trial and perfect our technology.

Most people will never drive a formula one car, but the technology developed by F1 – to extract the utmost power from an engine of a restricted size, to maximize aerodynamic efficiency, and to ensure the highest safety standards – has trickled down into every day road cars, having a highly positive influence on economy and safety.  Similarly, most people could not afford to live in a purpose-built eco-city, but in theory the technology and principles developed for the likes of Masdar will benefit far more people than its projected 40,000 occupants.  Principles such as specifying the orientation and width of streets to provide shade and to channel cool breezes could easily be incorporated by any town planner.  At the very least, Masdar has raised awareness of such principles.


Artist’s impression of Masdar’s central Plaza.

Furthermore, the project will undoubtedly help in identifying problems with the large scale application of renewable technology, and provide a platform upon which to develop solutions.

What is Masdar?

Masdar, the city, is a 700 hectare development thirty kilometres east of Abu Dhabi, which will have a population of 40,000 (plus workspace for a further 50,000 commuters).  Scheduled for completion in 2018, Masdar is designed to be carbon-neutral, entirely powered by renewable energy, to require 60% less water per capita than other settlements in the region, to use significantly less energy per capita, and to recycle all its waste:  Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Masdar, the company, is an Abu Dhabi Government initiative to reduce the CO2 emissions of Abu Dhabi as a whole, to accelerate the Emirate’s expansion into renewable energy (no doubt mindful of both peak oil and international pressure to reduce greenhouse gases), and to secure long term income from international renewable energy projects.  As the company’s website puts it, Masdar’s aims are to “advance renewable energy and sustainable technologies through education, R&D, investment and commercialization, [to establish Masdar as] a global leader in commercially-viable clean energy and sustainable technologies, and to secure the Emirate’s continued leadership in the evolving global energy market.”  Some would argue that Abu Dhabi is merely trying to find a new way of getting rich when the oil runs out, but who would blame them?  Having profited immensely from oil, it seems only fair that Abu Dhabi should be one of the countries to lead the way in terms of renewables R&D.

Masdar, which means “the source” in Arabic, is a subsidiary of Mubadala, the government owned investment arm which clearly states its mandate as “facilitating the diversification of Abu Dhabi’s economy“.


The London Array – one of Masdar’s flagship investments.

You will find on Masdar’s books a 20% stake in The London Array, which at 630MW will be the world’s largest offshore wind farm, the 6MW Seychelles Wind Farm, a 60% stake in SHAMS-1 (Abu Dhabi’s 100MW concentrating solar power station), Masdar City’s own 10MW PV array, and a 40% stake in Torresol.  Torresol is a Spanish company which aims to lead the way in concentrating solar power (CSP) technology, and currently operates two 50MW conventional CSP stations as well as the 19MW Gemasolar plant, which uses molten salt heat storage technology to prolong its operating hours.  And then there is Masdar City itself.  All in all an impressive portfolio, although some would be uncomfortable if their landlord were also their energy, transport and water provider, and quite possibly their employer too, as many of Masdar’s current inhabitants work for the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.  Cosy community or big brother-esque?


The 19MW Gemasolar CSP plant in Spain, funded in part by Masdar.

Ignoring any sociological issues, Masdar as originally planned is highly impressive.  A traffic-free city of 40,000 people, utilising a futuristic personal rapid transit (PRT)system, powered entirely by renewable energy, which recycles all its water and waste, emits no carbon on-site, and is built on a seven meter high plinth in the sand.  Unfortunately several of Masdar’s ambitious plans, such as the city wide PRT system, have fallen victim to the global recession, but there is still much to celebrate…

Technology and Innovation

Masdar City’s designers dreamed of a city which uses a wide range of renewable and energy saving technologies.  Some of these, such as photovoltaic panels and wind turbines are not particularly innovative in themselves, but the combined application of multiple technologies, to attempt to meet the demands of an entire city, is a world-first.  Innovations in power curve management, energy saving measures, and installation of these devices on a utility scale are all required.

Solar PV

Solar photovoltaic panels have been in use since the 1940’s, although today’s technology is far more efficient (and cheaper), achieving maximum commercial efficiencies of around 22%[i].  The early devices struggled to reach 1% efficiency[ii].  The technology is based around the Photoelectric Effect, first observed by Heinrich Hertz in 1887:  When photons, of which all light is made up, collide with certain types of matter their energy is absorbed and transferred into electrons.


The photoelectric effect.

These electrons are freed from their respective nuclei, and become photoelectrons.  Like all electrons, photoelectrons are negatively charged, and will follow a potential gradient; i.e. will move away from negative charges towards positive charges.  By using two different types of semiconductor, solar panels establish a potential gradient, such that any photoelectrons released will be induced to move from one type to the other, which constitutes an electric current.

The original vision for Masdar was that the majority of the city’s power would be generated by rooftop and shade-giving solar panels.  These would provide enough electricity to run domestic and commercial appliances (including lighting and air conditioning), and the PRT system.  Streetlights were to be independent units with built in solar cells and batteries, which would save money on underground cabling.  Like most developers, however, Mubadala was not immune to the global recession.  Masdar’s budget was cut from $24 billion to$18 billion[iii], and the ambitious plans for seamless integration of solar technology became a casualty.  Instead of the majority of Masdar’s above-ground-level surfaces being solar panels, the generation of solar energy has been outsourced to the 10MW PV and 100MW CSP plants outside the city.  Installing thousands of solar panels in a single location, in a uniform manner, is far cheaper than integrating them into buildings and cityscapes.  Maintenance and repair is also cheaper if the panels are concentrated in a single area.  While this reality may be viewed as a failure, the lessons learned from “failed” experiments can be invaluable.  I use inverted commas as the experiment was to investigate whether the complete integration of solar power is practicable, in both physical and financial terms.  The result that, no, in today’s financial climate it is not practicable, actually means the experiment was a success – it gave us an answer.

Another important lesson to come out of Masdar’s solar story is the importance of dust.  There’s plenty of it in the desert, and unfortunately it has a marked effect on the performance of PV panels.  So much so that Masdar has had to vastly scale back the PRT system, as the PV panels outside the city are not generating as much power as anticipated, although the budget cuts must share the blame for this disappointing cutback.

So what can other nations and councils take out of this?  Solar panels are too expensive?  Put all your solar panels in one basket?  Well, as is so often the case, the answer is “it depends”.  Masdar had a budget which was significantly reduced, and the planners therefore needed to save money.  They had the option of installing all the solar panels in the desert, instead of rooftops, which was cheaper.  Many towns don’t have the space to build large solar farms on their doorstep (Masdar’s 10MW array occupies 55 acres[iv]).  On a utility scale the savings afforded by making such a change will be significant, but on a domestic scale, where the cost is spread among thousands of householders, the cost of rooftop installs can easily be absorbed.  This has been proved in many developed countries, where, with appropriate incentive schemes in place, householders are installing their own solar panels.  In developing nations, however, it may be more appropriate for the government to minimise costs and follow Masdar’s strategy.  In the end, money always talks, and developers/policymakers will need to listen.

It is worth briefly noting that as Masdar is more concerned with keeping cool than staying warm, no significant use has been made of solar thermal panels.

Solar CSP

Unlike solar PV, there is no option but to locate a concentrating solar power station outside the city, requiring as they do a large, flat expanse.  CSP plants can either be of the “tower” variety, using hundreds of mirrors to focus the sun’s energy onto a central point, or the “trough” variety, which use parabolic troughs to target a pipe running along the trough’s focal axis.  Masdar’s plant, known as SHAMS-1, is of the latter design, and will use 786 mirrors spread across 2.5 square kilometres.  The network of pipes running through each trough’s focal point contains synthetic oil, which is heated to over 300oC[v].  This oil transfers the sun’s energy to a central water tank, where steam is generated.  Natural gas is then used to superheat this steam, before passing it through a conventional steam turbine.  This hybrid approach is a far more efficient use of natural gas, and also allows the generating equipment to run at night, which is financially more efficient than having separate CSP and gas power plants.


Masdar’s 100MW concentrating solar power plant.

SHAMS-1 is on course for completion in the early stages of 2013, and is projected to generate 210 gigawatt-hours per year; enough for 20,000 homes.  In terms of carbon reductions, that is equivalent to planting 1.5 million trees or taking 30,000 cars off the road[vi].  Shams 2 and 3 are also in the pipeline, although given the rapid reduction in the price of photovoltaic technology, it is uncertain whether these will be CSP or PV plants.

Like the PV panels, Shams 1 is also experiencing dust-related performance issues.  The developers did foresee this problem, although perhaps not the extent of it, and decided to locate the plant well away from the city (120km southwest of Abu Dhabi and neighbouring Masdar) where airborne pollution should be less intense.  Despite its location, significant dust deposits have been observed during construction.  These may be due in part to the ongoing construction activity, and it remains to be seen just how severely the plant’s performance will be affected on an ongoing basis.  Cleaning the mirrors will not be easy in an area where water is an extremely valuable commodity.

Concentrated solar power is an established technology, and as such there are limited lessons that the rest of the world can take from SHAMS.  What will be interesting is the financial performance of the plant, given its dual-fuel approach, the dust issue, and the fact that the cost of photovoltaic technology has fallen dramatically since SHAMS was commissioned.  Any financial figures published will be only be relevant to this part of the world, however, where gas is cheap, insolation (a measure of the amount of solar energy a particular area is exposed to) is high, dust is omnipresent, and water is extremely scarce.  If the plant is proven to be profitable, operating without subsidies and paying back its capital costs at a commercial rate of interest, then it will be lauded as a major success for Masdar, and others may be tempted to follow suit.  If the plant is not profitable, then it is likely that PV technology will be favoured over CSP by future developers.  Either way, developers in the Middle East should thank Masdar for funding this guinea-pig project.

Wind power

Wind power is not a major player in Masdar’s energy mix.  The gulf is not a windy region, and it is arguably more sensible to allocate investment to solar energy, as Masdar has done.  However, Masdar is keen to be seen to embrace all forms of renewable energy.  In addition to investing in major wind projects overseas (e.g. The London Array), the company is developing a wind farm on Sir Bani Yas island in the UAE.  With an expected capacity of around 30MW, this will be small by international standards (the London Array is 630MW and may be increased to over 1000MW), but would still represent by far the largest windfarm in the area.

Also at the planning stage is a $200 million[vii] onshore windfarm in the UAE, close to the Saudi Arabian border, although this project is not certain to go ahead.  In a similar vein to the SHAMS CSP project, Masdar’s Middle Eastern wind power projects will demonstrate the financial viability of wind power in this dusty and relatively wind-less region.

Energy from Waste

US firm Enertech Environmental has signed an agreement with Masdar to install a demonstration energy-from-waste facility.  By pressurising and heating sewage slurry without oxygen – a process known as pyrolysis – the hydrocarbons are extracted, resulting in a product that Enertech calls “efuel”.  This fuel is a mixture of gases and solids, which can be burnt like natural gas or coal to raise steam and power a turbine.  Other benefits of treating human waste in this way are the by-products of fertiliser and water, both of which can be used to improve the region’s agricultural output.  Details concerning the scale of this project have not been published.

Passive Cooling

As one of the hottest regions on Earth, the Middle East uses a huge amount of energy to keep cool.  The UAE’s summertime peak electricity demand per person is more than three times that of Spain[viii], which is primarily attributed to the extensive use of air conditioning.  The recent surge in its use has led to summertime blackouts as power stations struggle to meet demand, and according to the oil minister, Mohammad Bin Dha’en Al Hameli, the nation is now likely to become a net importer of natural gas[ix].  Mindful of this situation, Masdar’s architects have tried to minimize the city’s cooling requirements.  This has been achieved through various means, including aligning the city’s streets with the prevailing wind, making them narrow so as to channel the wind more efficiently, designing building facades that are able to minimize solar glare[x] (not unlike a stealth jet reducing its radar footprint), and using thermally efficient construction materials that provide insulation without locking in oodles of energy.  Global chemical company BASF will be manufacturing the majority of Masdar’s insulation foam out of recycled polystyrene and polyurethane[xi], in accordance with Masdar’s zero-carbon policy (which is more of an ideal that a reality).  Finally, in terms of passive cooling, Masdar will make excellent use of an ancient technology knows as the wind catcher, or wind tower…

Evidence of wind towers dates back over 3000 years, with ancient Egypt being credited with their invention[xii].  However, with the expansion of cities around the world, and the resultant demand for rapid construction in confined areas, not to mention the abundance of cheap energy and the invention of air conditioning, their use fell out of fashion, and it’s only recently that architects have learnt to appreciate their energy saving powers again.

Wind towers work in one of three ways:

  • Physically directing airflow downwards.
  • Directing airflow upwards using a wind assisted temperature gradient.
  • Directing airflow upwards using a solar-assisted temperature gradient.

Masdar City’s wind tower works on either the first or third of these principles:  On calm days the wind tower, which is situated in the city’s main square, heats up and hot air starts to flow upwards through the tower.  This establishes a street level breeze towards the base of the tower, and cools the surrounding area by a perceived 5oC[xiii].  Alternatively, when it’s windy the tower’s louvres (flaps) can be adjusted to allow the wind to enter the top of the tower and to direct it downwards, injecting a cool breeze into the ground level streets…in theory.  These narrow streets are designed to efficiently channel the breezes away from the base of the tower, maximising the cooling effect.


Masdar’s 43m high wind tower.

The effectiveness of this wind tower remains to be seen.  At the design phase, Masdar’s officials predicted that the cooling effect in the plaza may be as much as 20oC[xiv], but whether the effect will be noticeable at all is now in question:  As the streets fill up and the air’s fluidity characteristics are altered, the strength of these breezes will reduce.  However, as Gerard Evenden, senior consultant with Masdar’s designers Foster & Partners, points out: “We want to make the structure itself a laboratory and get people talking about other possibilities, and hopefully get that to influence the next phase.  We see it as an ongoing learning process.”[xv] 

Possible improvements include painting the tower black to increase its thermal absorption, and consequently the temperature gradient within the tower.  This would lead to stronger airflows, providing greater cooling, and the potential to install small wind turbines within the tower.  The wind tower project is another example of Abu Dhabi putting up its oil money to test and refine new energy saving techniques.

Active Cooling

Moving from passive to active cooling, Masdar is also pioneering the use of a large scale solar absorption refrigerator for district cooling.  This project consists of a solar concentrating array (i.e. mirrors) outside the city, which are used to heat a transfer fluid.  This fluid then drives the absorption refrigerator and generates cold water.  For an explanation of how absorption refrigerators use heat to produce a cooling effect, see wikipedia.  The cold water is piped to several buildings, where it accepts heat and transports it back to the refrigeration plant.

Uniquely, the plant uses two types of solar concentrator:  First of all, parabolic troughs similar to those used in Masdar’s CSP electricity plant are used to heat thermal oil.  The energy is then transferred through a heat exchanger from the oil into a pressurised water circuit, which further heats the water through the use of Fresnel reflectors[xvi].  Without going into detail, Fresnel reflectors are similar to parabolic troughs in that they focus the sun’s energy onto a single axis, but differ in the fact that they use flat reflector surfaces, which are cheaper to produce, and through intelligent design their focal axis can be rendered stationary.  The latter point is crucial, as stationary pipes can contain a higher pressure fluid than those requiring moveable joints.  This means it isn’t a problem if the fluid boils and becomes steam.  Steam can achieve higher temperatures than liquid oil, which means a greater cooling effect can be generated at the central refrigeration plant.  By initially using thermal oil and parabolic trough reflectors, before passing the accumulated heat into water and using Fresnel reflectors, Masdar’s absorption refrigeration plant is able to minimise the volume of water it requires (a highly scarce resource in the desert), and to maximise the temperatures achieved, and subsequently its performance.


Parabolic troughs use the sun’s energy to cool Masdar’s buildings, via absorptive refrigeration.

This pilot project produces enough cold water to cool 1,700m2 of office space, replacing around 80 conventional air conditioning units and reducing CO2 emissions by about 70,000 kg per annum.  Already a success in terms of its operation, the plant’s operating costs are currently being assessed for standalone commercial viability.  Dust on the solar collectors and the associated cleaning costs are a recurring issue.

Further Innovations

There isn’t space in one article to cover all that Masdar City is doing to minimize its carbon footprint.  The personal rapid transport system, for example, would require several square feet of web space to analyse its successes and failures, and the reasons for these; a discussion of the effectiveness of smart electricity meters and low flow showers may best be left to those with a specific interest; and the ingenious materials and construction techniques used in the making of Masdar City could occupy an entire manual.  Throw “Masdar” and “PRT” or any other of these technologies into Google and you will find lots more information.


Masdar City is a living, breathing experiment.  With the backing of a wealthy and determined government, proximity to a major international airport, and an attractive financial and political climate for investors, few observers doubt that the city will be successful at least as a place of learning and business.  But how successful will it be in terms of carbon neutrality, and is this really the best way to measure its success?

Masdar’s decision to scale back the amount of rooftop PV is particularly noteworthy, and may well serve as a lesson to others, to at least compare this strategy with that of building an extra-urban PV plant.  It does seem that large scale installations outside cities are the future:  Huge wind farms in the temperate regions and huge solar farms in the tropics are the current trend.  In my opinion, it is actually pretty irrelevant if Masdar City is energy self-sufficient or not.  If it isn’t, more solar or wind farms can be built.  If it is, others may say that Masdar had an unfair advantage with so much space and money to invest.  Most developed countries are investing heavily in renewable electricity, and in that respect, Abu Dhabi can’t really claim to be any different:  They are using various renewable power stations around the country, measuring how much energy these are producing, and offsetting the demands of one city against this total.  If the UK did that we could say that in terms of electricity, Greater London, with a population of over eight million people, was almost self-sufficient (in 2011 the UK generated almost 35,000 GWh[xvii] of renewable electricity, which is 87%[xviii] of Greater London’s demand).

But I’m being facetious.  Masdar’s goal of being carbon neutral is undeniably accelerating the deployment of renewable power in the UAE, which is clearly a positive result.  Because, however, the rest of the developed world is also installing as many solar and wind farms as it can afford (in terms of both space and money), the real lessons that Masdar can teach us are about sustainable living:  Will the city’s waste be negligible, her streets be pollution free, her population’s water demand minimal, and her energy demand per capita significantly reduced?  In my opinion Masdar will be significantly ahead of other cities with respect to all of these criteria, and the international media spotlight will help disseminate the design principles used to achieve these goals, so that architects and planners elsewhere are more likely to incorporate them; a fantastic result if it happens.

But one particular question lingers…

Will the people feel good about it, or, each time big brother switches off their showers after a few minutes, or they can’t see the sunset because their house is designed to look the other way, will they gradually become inclined to move elsewhere?  Perhaps I’m being too sceptical – I’ll reserve judgement until someone buys me a ticket to the UAE (and offsets its carbon footprint).

Small Island; Big Idea

The Orkney Isles are a fascinating place: Europe’s best preserved Neolithic village, home of “the best whisky in the world”[i], and host to “the world’s first and only accredited wave and tidal test centre for marine renewable energy[ii].  The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), is found in Stromness, and, unbeknown to most mainland Brits, is playing a major role in helping Scotland lead the international race to harness the power of the sea.


The town of Stromness, home to the European Marine Energy Centre.

Following a 2001 recommendation by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, EMEC was set up by a group of public sector organisations in 2003.  Its main goal was, and is, to accelerate the development of marine energy converters in the UK, by providing grid-connected test sites and support services.  Today EMEC has 14 test berths, spread across two areas, as well as two further “nursery” sites for testing scaled-down prototype devices.  In 2012 EMEC became financially self-supporting, a true vindication of its existence.  Developers from all over the planet are using EMEC’s services, and all 14 of its test sites are occupied.  EMEC has six wave energy test sites in the waters off Billia Croo, on Orkney’s West Mainland, and eight tidal energy test sites in an area known as the Fall of Warness, off the Island of Eday.


Ocean Power Delivery’s “Pelamis P2” undergoing trials at EMEC’s Billia Croo test site.

The beauty of these test berths is that developers can avoid the costly and time consuming processes of securing permission from the Crown Estate (who owns the sea-bed around the UK), establishing a grid connection, which can take over a year, and installing subsea cables.  Furthermore, EMEC has a huge bank of data going back over a decade, which describes the sea state and allows developers to predict the loads their devices will be subject to; EMEC has expertise in delivering and recovering devices to their berths; they can assist with design issues, and in general they can share their vast experience gained through having witnessed and assisted numerous developers in going through the process of deploying new marine energy converters.

Without EMEC, the rate of development would undoubtedly be significantly slower. EMEC’s current clients include the following:

Wave Energy Developers

1. Established in 2005 and based in Edinburgh, Aquamarine Power’s “Oyster” consists of a giant arm attached to the sea-bed; the device swings back and forth in the waves, and pumps high pressure water through a shore based hydroelectric turbine.


Aquamarine Power’s “Oyster” wave energy converted being installed at Billia Croo, Orkney.

The first 800kW mark-II Oyster was grid-connected at Billia Croo in June 2012, and after successful trials Aquamarine Power is currently working with Scottish and Southern Energy to develop a 40MW wave farm off the Island of Lewis, and a further 200MW wave farm in Orcadian waters; a hugely positive development to come out of EMEC (although some stakeholders do object to such large scale occupation of the sea-bed).

2. E-On, a multinational utility provider, purchased a Pelamis “P2” wave energy converter in 2009, marking the first significant investment in wave power by a major company.  The Pelamis device was developed, and is being perfected, by Ocean Power Delivery, also based in Edinburgh.  It is the brainchild of Richard Yemm, a former student of Professor Stephen Salter – the godfather of wave power – famous for inventing Salter’s Duck in the 70’s.  The Pelamis wave converter consists of five sections which shift and rotate in the waves.  Each movement forces high pressure fluid through a turbine housed within the device, which in turn spins a generator.  The device is almost 200m long  and weighs approximately 1,350 tonnes[iii].  E.On has secured permission from the Crown Estate to develop a 50MW Pelamis P2 wave farm to the North of Stromness, which would incorporate up to 66 devices.

3. Scottish Power also installed a Pelamis P2 in spring 2012, and this device is now operated alongside E.On’s P2.  In a rare collaboration between rival energy providers, Scottish Power and E.On have agreed to share the learning and experience gained throughout their sea trials.  Scottish Power has also secured permission to install a 50MW wave farm in the waters off Marwick Head, Orkney.

4. Seatricity is a relatively recent British entry into the wave power industry.  Their device incorporates several floats, rising and falling with the waves.  Each float operates a pump which forces seawater through a shore based hydroelectric turbine.  By using several floats and pumps, each shore based turbine can generate a peak output of 1 megawatt.  Having completed successful trials in the calmer waters off Antigua, Seatricity had planned to install their first device at Billia Croo during 2012.  This has been delayed by various manufacturing issues, but 2013 should see their device up and running.


Seatricity’s wave energy converter harnesses the sea’s energy via the waves’ interaction with numerous floats, each connected to a pump on the seabed.

5. Vattenfall, Europe’s sixth largest producer of electricity, has recently secured the rights to one of EMEC’s test berths, and they too will be testing the Pelamis P2 come 2014.  With a refined version of the device under development, Vattenfall will benefit from the testing currently being carried out by E.On and Scottish Power.  If the EMEC seatrials go well, Vattenfall has plans to develop a 10MW wave farm off the coast of Shetland.

6. WELLO OY is a Finnish company that has been developing wave power devices since 1976, making them one of the elder statesmen of the industry.  In 2008 they settled on the “Penguin” model, and have now developed a 500kW prototype.  The Penguin is unique in that it utilises a flywheel; a highly efficient method of accumulating and temporarily storing kinetic energy.  The asymmetric hull heaves and rolls in the waves, with each movement accelerating a heavy weight mounted on an internal axle.  The same axel turns a generator, with the electricity being exported via a subsea cable.


Cut away diagram of Wello Oy’s “penguin”; the red weight rotates and drives a flywheel and generator as the device pitches in the waves.

In January 2013 the device was returned to Riga, Latvia, for upgrades and maintenance, and is expected to return to EMEC in May 2013.  With no moving parts exposed to the elements, this device may have distinct advantages over the likes of the Pelamis and Oyster.

Tidal Energy Developers

1. Norwegian company Andritz Hydro Hammerfest is a global equipment supplier to the hydroelectricity industry.  In December 2011 they successfully deployed their 1 megawatt tidal turbine at EMEC’s Fall of Warness site.  Their device is a sea-bed mounted 3-bladed turbine, which works in the same way as a wind turbine.  The designers opted for rugged simplicity over maximum efficiency, with a fixed turbine orientation:  This means the turbine must be installed in the correct alignment for the local tides, and that any variation in the tide’s direction of flow will lead to  a reduced output.  Thankfully, most sites have a consistent orientation of flow; 180o shifts between the ebb and the flow simply drive the turbine in the opposite direction.

2. Founded in Australia, but now with head offices in London and Singapore, Atlantis Resources claim to be “the leader in marine power” (debatable!), and began testing their tidal turbine in Australia as far back as 2002.  After further tests in Singapore, including tow-tests, the Atlantis AR1000 turbine is now undergoing trials at the Fall of Warness, with the Orkney tides providing the toughest test to date.  The turbine sits on a 1,300 tonne gravity base, and stands 22.5 metres tall.


Atlantis Resources’ “AR1000” tidal turbine being prepared for installation.

Atlantis has secured a deal to supply turbines to the Meygen Project; a joint venture between Morgan Stanley and International Power, which ultimately aims to install a 398 megawatt wave farm in the Pentland Firth, just South of Orkney.  This is a hugely ambitious project, and the infrastructure required in the North of Scotland – harbours, supply vessels, staff, offices – would have a significant effect on the local economy, but also perhaps on the environment.

3. Dutch company Bluewater Energy Services specialises in offshore storage systems, but has now branched out into tidal energy.  Bluewater manufactures a floating support structure for tidal turbines.  Their device works with a range of turbines, and can boost their performance by positioning them closer to the surface where the energy density is higher.  Testing in Orkney is in conjunction with Italian turbine manufacturer Ponte di Archimede.

4. When they’re not busy making motorbikes, Kawasaki have found the time to develop a pretty respectable 1 megawatt tidal turbine.  Their solid, yet orthodox, sea-bed mounted device will be tested at EMEC in 2013/14, with component testing presently being carried out in Holland.  Kawasaki are using a number of UK companies to assist in the design and manufacture of their device, and are considering our shores for the assembly and fabrication of the finished article.

5. Dublin-based OpenHydro was the first developer to use the tidal test site at the Fall of Warness.


The strength of Orkney’s tides is clearly visible as the sea rushes past OpenHydro’s test turbine, raised for maintenance, at the Fall of Warness.

Their unconventional, open-centred turbine was installed in 2006, and was the first tidal turbine to be grid connected in Scotland.  Uniquely, their turbine is mounted on steel piles and can be raised out of the water to facilitate maintenance or for protection from heavy seas.

6. Founded in 2002 by a former student of the International Centre for Island technology in Stromness, ScotRenewables Tidal Power Ltd has successfully developed and are testing a 250kW prototype tidal turbine.  Their device is different to other turbines in that as opposed to being sea-bed mounted, the machine consists of two turbines attached to a floating structure.  This feature, combined with the turbines’ ability to retract into a horizontal position for towing, allows for easier maintenance and repair; the device can be towed back to port quickly and easily, avoiding the need for expensive on-site maintenance (subsea work involving divers is exceptionally expensive).  Additionally, the device is mounted on a universal ball-and-socket style mooring which allows it to swing into whichever direction the tide flows. ScotRenewables are currently designing a two megawatt turbine, which is on course to be the most powerful turbine ever produced.

7. Bristol-based Tidal Generation Ltd was established in 2005, but became a subsidiary of Rolls-Royce in 2009, and is soon to be passed on to Alstom, a multinational company specialising in the transport of energy. TGL installed a 500kW prototype turbine at the Fall of Warness in 2010, and are currently working on a 1 megawatt device.  Their machines are mounted on a tripod which is secured to the seabed by drilling and piling.  Importantly, the nacelle (main body of the turbine) rotates on the tripod to meet the oncoming tide, and is buoyant, which allows it to be towed to and from the site for installation or maintenance.

8. Finally, Voith Hydro is a subsidiary of the Voith Group, a German company which manufactures around a third of all hydroelectric turbines and generators.  In a joint venture with international electricity supplier RWE Group, Voith will be installing their first 1 megawatt tidal turbine at the Fall of Warness in 2013.

As you can see, EMEC’s clients are a fairly international bunch.  This is great  news for Scotland and the UK.  EMEC is helping to establish a reputation for marine energy expertise, which should be self-propagating; as more investors come to Scotland, the local knowledge pool will grow, as will our reputation.  Scotland already has a greater number of wave and tidal energy devices being developed and tested than anywhere else in the world.  Supportive businesses such as the presence of dynamic positioning vessels (for installing moorings and cables), harbour facilities, fabrication yards and staff training facilities, which couldn’t find enough business elsewhere, should thrive in the North of Scotland.

As Neil Kermode, EMEC’s managing director put it: “If you go to any oil town in the world, there’ll be somebody from Aberdeen there, doing business, making money and bringing wealth back to Scotland. In the future I believe you’ll go to marine towns […]and there’ll be a link back to Orkney. People will know where it is on the map, will know people who’ve been here and they’ll have an affinity with us.” Neil’s claim is evidenced by various international agreements; EMEC recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Incheon Metropolitan City in South Korea, to provide technical assistance with the design, construction and operation of a tidal energy testing facility.  Similar agreements are already in place with the Ocean University, China, the Ocean Energy Association of Japan, the Pacific Marine Energy Centre in Oregon, and Canada’s Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy.  That’s pretty impressive global coverage for a town of just over 2000 people!

Kermode goes on to say that EMEC’s international clients “recognise we are the experts. We’ve been treated with great courtesy and respect in all these overseas locations and they genuinely value what’s going on in Orkney. They welcome the fact that we come in and say we’re willing to help and would like to build a long-term relationship. I think that’s really helped the reach of Scotland plc into these countries as we’re seen as bringing a quality offering.” So long as we don’t indulge in any laurel-resting, Scotland stands to make both a healthy profit and a healthier still contribution to reducing global carbon emissions.  The World Energy Council has estimated that the Earth’s oceans have the potential to generate approximately twice our current electricity demand, or about two million megawatts[iv].

The beauty of tidal power is that it can be accurately predicted months in advance, unlike wind energy.  This means its contribution to national grids is far more useful, and tidal energy farms in different parts of the country, subject to different tidal states, can be used to provide a smooth power curve.  Wave energy sits somewhere between wind and tidal power, with sea states being highly forecast-able, but not predictable. As a tip-of-the-hat to realism, however, let’s take the UK as an example:  In 2011 the UK generated 368 terawatt-hours, or 368 million megawatt-hours[v].  Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume we are going to generate all of this energy from tidal power (and we’ll ignore the storage and peak load issues):  With 8760 hours in a year, that’s 42,000 one megawatt tidal energy converters working flat out.  But tidal energy converters have a typical load factor of 27%[vi] (wind turbines vary from around 25-45%, depending on their location), so it turns out we would need over 155,000 devices in our seas.  Let’s be optimistic and say that development at EMEC and elsewhere quickly leads to an industry standard of 3 megawatt devices.  That would reduce the requirement to 52,000 devices.

Sounds like a lot?  It is – there are currently less than 3000 large wind turbines in the UK[vii].  So while the seas may have the potential to meet our electricity requirements, the practicalities of achieving this are more than a little uncertain.  That said, there are genuine plans and preparations being made for the installation of 1,600 megawatts of marine energy capacity in Orkney waters by 2020.  With a 27% load factor, these would generate 3.8 terawatt-hours of green electricity each year; 1% of our national demand from a trail-blazing project in one small corner of the country, and enough to supply electricity to almost half a million homes.


Artist’s impression of a Pelamis wave farm.

Marine energy is still at an early stage, with the current situation being likened to wind power twenty years ago; many different devices are being developed and tested, with no clear winners yet.  When the best designs and materials become clear, several things will happen; one or two designers will make a lot of money, economies of scale will evolve in the manufacturing of components, and governments around the world will (hopefully) provide enticing incentives for the now-proven technology.  The potential is there to generate a huge amount of energy from the oceans, with certain pros and cons over wind power, (e.g. predictability and cost respectively), but the practicalities and level of objections from other sea-users will pose significant problems.  In the meantime, a small group of islands off the north of Scotland continues to punch well above its weight in terms of international significance, and we can all watch in wonder as they help to lead the world towards a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Reforestation Rears its Leafy Head

To quote Gandhi,

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”[i]

An interesting submission, particularly when you bear in mind that it was said over 80 years ago, but then Gandhi was known for being ahead of his time.  Could he foresee the horrific deforestation of the late twentieth century, and how badly it would reflect upon western civilisation?  On average during the eighties and nineties an area roughly the size of Greece[ii],[iii] was deforested every year.  This primarily took place in developing nations,  but would never have done so without demand from the developed world.


A lone tree left by loggers stands tall above the three year old reforested saplings in Miguel Pereira, Brazil.[iv]

Thankfully however, the tide may be starting to turn.  In September 2011 The Bonn Challenge was set.  Bonn, already in the collective conscience of environmentalists because of the 1969 Bonn Agreement[v] (a landmark international deal to reduce oil spills in the North Atlantic), played host to an IUCN-chaired summit attended by a governmental ministers and CEO’s of international organisations and companies.  The focus of the agenda was to develop a strategy to mitigate, counter-act and control deforestation.  The resulting Bonn Challenge is defined as a commitment to “restore 150 million hectares of lost forests and degraded lands worldwide by 2020″[vi].

To put this in perspective, the UN claims that the average global deforestation between 1980 and 2005 was over 13 million hectares per year[vii], so meeting the Bonn Challenge would effectively reverse over 11 years’ worth of deforestation…not too paltry.  If it is achieved, climate scientists believe the net carbon emissions gap needed to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees centigrade could be cut by 17%[viii].  It is, unfortunately, worth noting that reforestation will always be accompanied by deforestation elsewhere, so what the Bonn Challenge can only really achieve is an off-setting of deforestation.  Nevertheless, it represents a change of thinking among governments and businesses, and the results are already bearing fruit, and nuts…

In Brazil, for instance, the ITPA (Instituto Terra de Preservacao Ambiental) forest restoration project has been undeniably successful.  Operating in the Miguel Pereira region, 100km north of Rio, over 950 hectares of formerly barren hillside have already been reforested with native Atlantic forest species such as Araguaney and fast-growing Angico Artemisiana – some of which are almost 10 metres tall.

Sequentially, logging, coffee plantations and cattle ranching had reduced this land’s fertility to virtually nil, making reforestation particularly challenging.  The key, according to the Nature Conservation Foundation, is to use a mixture of native and alien species[ix].  Some alien (to Brazil) species, such as Eucalyptus and Acacia are particularly hardy, and are able to get a foothold in the barren soil.  They provide shelter and stability for the native species, and their leaves create fertile topsoil.  So long as the forest is managed to prevent the alien species taking over, which would result in very poor biodiversity and unsuitable habitats, the strategy is successful.


Native species such as the Yellow Flowering Araguaney have been used to reforest barren land in Brazil.

Further evidence of change is the Brazilian government’s pledge to reduce deforestation by 80 percent by 2020[x], as illustrated by the graph below.  Although the 500,000 hectare deforestation target is still huge compared to current reforestation rates in Brazil, the massive reduction it represents augurs very well for the future.  David Cleary of Nature Conservancy South America believes Brazil is “moving towards essentially a no-deforestation position by 2030; It’s way, way beyond any commitment that Brazil has made in deforestation before“.  And while deforestation still significantly outweighs reforestation in Brazil, it’s not so bad on a global scale…read on!


Historic and future targets for deforestation in Brazil[xi].  The 2017 target is 5000 square kilometres, or 500,000 hectares.

Take China, for example; an interesting country between Mongolia and Nepal.  Often slated for building “one coal-fired power station every 3 seconds (no citations found!)”, my key observation about China is that the furious rate of development and economic evolution seems to have resulted in the simultaneous occurrences of the industrial revolution, enlightenment, boom and, importantly, a significant environmental movement.  Before being too hard on China, you need to bear in mind that it ranks 78th in terms of carbon emissions per capita, while the US and UK are ranked 12th  and  43rd respectively:  If Chinese levels of car ownership were the same as those in the USA, global oil demand would double.  Unthinkable.

As well as all those coal fired power stations, China generates almost 16%[xii] of the planet’s wind power from over 34,000 turbines, second only to the USA.  It is also by far and away the largest generator of hydro-electricity (although the 3 Gorges Dam is highly controversial, and studies into the resultant carbon emissions from submerged and decaying organic matter are ongoing).  Furthermore, as I reach the end of this Chinese tangent, China’s “Great Green Wall” project, a human-made ecological barrier designed to stop rapidly encroaching deserts and combat climate change, aims to cover 400 million hectares with new forest by 2050; more than 42 percent of China’s landmass[xiii].

Globally, annual net deforestation is currently around 7.3 million hectares per year[xiv], and China will need to reforest about 9 million hectares per year to achieve the Great Green Wall’s objective; if successful net deforestation could be wiped out…but it’s a big ask; Come on China!

Countries such as Spain, the UK, and Germany are also increasing their forest cover, but obviously cannot have the same level of impact with just over 11% of China’s landmass between them.


China – country of contrasts[xv].

Elsewhere, the Philippines is making waves:  The country is ranked fourth most vulnerable to climate change, but only 43rd in terms of emissions:  But instead of blaming richer, bigger polluters, they are leading by example and have set a target of reforesting 1.5m hectares of forest by 2016[xvi]

Meanwhile in Ecuador, a unique project to preserve the tremendously important Yasuni nature reserve, which sits on top of millions of barrels of oil, is under way.  The reserve protects some of the finest, most biodiverse rainforest on the planet, but Ecuador’s economy depends largely on oil.  What to do?  Ask the UN!  And they answered; a new fund was created which pays Ecuador to leave Yasuni’s oil untapped, saving the area from destruction.  Traditionally, developing nations have been paid by richer countries to plant trees and off-set Western emissions; part of the international carbon emissions trading scheme.  In this case, however, Ecuador is being paid not for remediation or mitigation, but for the opportunity cost of extracting oil -a world first.

Key donors to the fund, which has so far raised about $250 million, include the Italian, Spanish (not sure how they can afford it!) and German governments, as well as brands such as Unilever and Coca-Cola who see it as part of their corporate social responsibility.  Long may it continue.

While the greatest gains are to be had in the Amazon, tropical Africa, and China, efforts are going on all over the planet, and they all add up.  Read about the Armenia Tree Project here, Ulster’s plan to double its forested area here, and the Haiti reforestation Project here; just a taste of the myriad projects going on all over the world.


The Armenia Tree Project has planted over 4,000,000 trees since 1994.[xvii]

Ultimately reforestation and afforestation (creating forests on land which has never supported them before) can play a vital role in combating climate change.  During its lifetime a single tree in the rainforest will sequester the carbon emissions associated with one short haul flight.  That may not sound hugely impressive, but there is scope to plant more than a couple of trees!  However, as is usually the case in our complicated world, the issue is far from simple.  Planting more trees means less land to grow crops on.  Richer developing nations means more demand for meat, which means dedicating more land to cattle, which take up more land than rice does, per calorie produced:  Planting trees may lead to  a global shortage of food.  Preserving trees may lead to a shortage of construction materials.

There is currently a massive uptake in the demand for woodfuel, with modern biomass boilers offering a viable alternative to oil.  This could lead to greater forest cover, as responsible woodfuel suppliers will only supply sustainable produce, but it could also lead to irresponsible suppliers razing existing forests without replacing them.  Consider these issues if you will, but hold on to the fact that global deforestation rates are decreasing, and there is a genuine chance of achieving zero net deforestation within a couple of decades.  You couldn’t have said that ten years ago.

[ii] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2005), “Deforestation continues at an alarming rate”,

[vii] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2005), “Deforestation continues at an alarming rate”,