UK: EMEC Celebrates Its 10th Birthday

UK: EMEC Celebrates Its 10th Birthday

The European Marine Energy Centre – the world’s first and only test centre for wave and tidal energy devices – celebrates its tenth anniversary this month, with the pioneering Orkney based facility planning a host of events to mark its milestone year.

The centre, which started off with just four wave test berths at Billia Croo, on the west coast of the Orkney mainland, has expanded considerably over the past decade. Now it operates six grid connected wave test berths at Billia Croo, and eight tidal test berths at the Fall of Warness, off the island of Eday. Two smaller-scale wave and tidal test sites are also available for device, technique and component testing in less challenging sea conditions.

All of EMEC’s test berths are currently contracted out to marine energy developers as the industry moves closer to its goal of full scale commercialisation of wave and tidal technologies.

Crucially, EMEC’s presence has sparked the growth of an entirely new industry in Orkney, with increasing numbers of local businesses now diversifying into the marine renewables sector. Recent figures show that marine energy supports around 250 jobs in the islands, with EMEC’s clients injecting approximately £1m per device into the local economy. Staffing at EMEC has almost doubled during the past three years, with the centre now employing over 20 people in Orkney.

Instrumental in the creation of international standards for wave and tidal testing, EMEC’s knowledge and expertise in the marine energy field continues to be sought around the world. Staff from the Stromness headquartered facility are assisting with the development of marine energy centres in Canada, USA, Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea, with several other nations seeking EMEC’s advice on testing.

It was in 2001 that a House of Commons Select Science and Technology Committee recommended a test centre should be created to help develop a marine energy industry in the UK. Orkney was chosen as the site for the centre because of the power of the waves and tidal currents around the islands, its sheltered harbours and its connection to the national grid.

EMEC was set up in 2003, with over £30 million of public funding invested to date from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish and UK governments, Orkney Islands Council, the European Union and the Carbon Trust. The centre remains independent and is now self-financing.

The Billia Croo test site was opened in 2004 and later that year the Pelamis 750 became the first floating wave energy device in the world to generate electricity to the national grid. Two years later EMEC opened its tidal test site at the Fall of Warness and, in 2008, Open Hydro’s 250Kw turbine became the first tidal energy converter to generate electricity to the UK grid. The wave and tidal test sites were expanded in 2010, with EMEC’s smaller scale test facilities opened the following year.

EMEC’s technical director John Griffiths has been with the centre since day one. A chemical engineer with extensive oil and gas experience, he led a team of experts which drew up a report on marine energy for the Department of Trade and Industry back in 1999 and first mooted the idea of an independent test centre for wave and tidal devices. He later went on to assist Highlands and Islands Enterprise with studies aimed at identifying the best location for the new centre and subsequently found himself helping turn visionary plan into reality.

 “We effectively started out with a blank sheet of paper and had to make it up as we went along,” says John, reflecting on EMEC’s early days. “Nobody had ever created a facility for testing wave and tidal devices before. Equally, developers back then were taking a step into what was unknown engineering territory, trying to design technologies to function in the most hostile of environments.

 “It was all done on a shoestring and none of us realised the enormity of what we were doing, least of all the developers. Every time we came across a problem we’d sit down and think about how we were going to deal with it. We got lots of things wrong and, in the early days, we relied heavily on the very few leading companies around who were all struggling themselves, limping along between grants. We spent a lot of time lobbying to persuade people this was an industry that needed to be supported. It was all very pioneering and, at times, very iffy!”

John adds: “I just stand amazed when I look at what’s been achieved to date as creating a test centre was a complete step of faith. Nowadays, I’m never afraid to say I work for EMEC because everybody smiles. It’s liked and it’s valued and I think it’s brought a lot to Orkney.”

In addition to a burgeoning local supply chain, increasing numbers of graduates are also finding opportunities in Orkney’s marine energy sector, with EMEC’s data technician Adele Lidderdale amongst them. The 27-year-old from Kirkwall gained a BSc (Hons) in Sustainable Rural Development from the University of the Highlands and Islands, with the course delivered locally by Orkney College.

 “Marine renewables is a fresh and exciting industry that’s creating a real buzz around Orkney and I knew it was something I wanted to be involved in when deciding what and where to study,” says Adele, who joined EMEC in May 2012. “Being able to undertake my course at home in Orkney, at the heart of the marine renewables industry, was essential as it introduced me to people already working in the sector and gave me the chance to develop a better understanding of wave and tidal technologies.”

Adele is now responsible for the quality control of a number of data streams from EMEC’s test sites. She creates reports from the data gathered, providing developers with information that’s vital for their testing programmes.

“Marine renewables is proving to be everything I hoped it would be,” adds Adele. “It’s varied and challenging and I enjoy that sense of being involved with a pioneering industry trying to help solve the world’s energy problems.”

EMEC will be celebrating its tenth anniversary at this month’s All Energy conference in Aberdeen, with the centre’s managing director Neil Kermode addressing delegates attending the event’s special wave and tidal sessions. EMEC’s clients will also give updates on the technologies currently undergoing testing in Orkney in the newly created Wave and Tidal Seminar.

And plans are being developed for a Test Centre Symposium event which will see wave and tidal test facility providers from around the world gather in Orkney later this year to see first hand the flagship marine energy development work being done in the islands. The symposium will give representatives the chance to discuss common challenges for test sites and identify opportunities for collaboration, export and further sharing of knowledge via a global network of leading marine energy clusters.

EMEC has already launched and distributed a new general information leaflet explaining its work and highlighting the importance of Orkney’s part in the development of the global marine renewables industry. Educational resources for local schools are also being created to generate interest in marine renewables amongst younger people and help develop the future supply chain.

The centre, which has had a special new 10th anniversary logo designed, will also be erecting commemorative landmarks at its test sites and assisting with the development of a marine renewables exhibition in Stromness.

“From the outset we made it our aim to respond and adapt to the needs of the emerging wave and tidal industry, while also endeavouring to create globally recognised standards and structures for testing,” says EMEC’s managing director Neil Kermode. “We’ve grown as the industry has grown and everyone at EMEC is immensely proud to have played a part in making Orkney the world centre for marine energy development that it is today. More marine energy activity is now taking place in Orkney than at any other location in the world, with a significant support chain industry developing in the islands. But none of what’s been achieved so far would have been possible without the support of the Orkney community and the commitment of the public and private sector.

 “A decade is a significant milestone to have passed, but the marine energy industry is still in its infancy, with many challenges – including the thorny issue of grid connection and transmission charging – to overcome before full-scale wave and tidal arrays become a commercially viable reality.

 “The technology works, of that there is no question, but developers and investors now need to increase the reliability and work out how large arrays of multiple machines can be built, installed and operated, safely, efficiently and cost-effectively. One of our roles at EMEC over the next few years will be to provide help to developers negotiating the difficult path towards commercial deployment and we anticipate this input will become even greater as major array deployment along the world’s coastlines becomes a reality.”

Mr Kermode added: “It gives us enormous pleasure to be able to share our anniversary celebrations with industry colleagues and the local community and we look forward to helping protect and strengthen Orkney’s role as marine energy’s elder statesman over the next decade, and beyond.”


Press release, May 23, 2013; Image: emec