Science Interviews

Interview

Sun, 21st Jan 2007

Renewable Energy

Alison Hill and Max Carcas

Part of the show Alternative Energy, Climate Change and Carbon Capture

Wind turbineAli - Wind energy was in the news late last year when the government approved a massive new offshore wind farm to be built just where the Thames empties into the sea. It's called the London Array and it's going to have about three hundred turbines generating 1000 megawatts of clean electricity. That one wind farm will generate half as much energy as is currently operational in the whole of the UK, and enough to power about a quarter of the homes in greater London. I asked the British Wind Energy Association's Alison Hill all about it.

Alison - The London Array offshore wind farm has certainly attracted a lot of attention. This is going to be the biggest offshore wind farm in the world by about a factor of 5. The UK is very firmly at the forefront of adopting the whole climate change issue and taking measures to secure future energy supplies and wind farms are a good way of doing this.

Ali - Are there any environmental costs to putting a huge wind farm in the Thames Estuary?

Alison - No technology comes without impacts. The London Array obviously has had several years worth of very detailed environmental assessment carried out. There will be consequences it is inevitable but this project has been designed as closely as possible to minimise those impacts. We just had reports published from the Danish offshore experience, which looks at 8 years worth of environmental impacts from two of their offshore wind farms which are currently the biggest in the world. And these demonstrate very clearly that wind farms do operate in harmony with the local environment.

Ali - Small wind turbines on peoples roofs are a bit less visually impacting. Do they work the same way as the large wind farms and do you think they're feasible?

Alison - The principle of generating electricity from the wind is the same, whether you do it onshore, offshore, on a roof or on a pole down the back of your garden. What you will find with these smaller domestic scale turbines is that they're not necessarily as efficient as their commercial colleagues the wind farm turbines. But studies have shown that you can see a reduction in your energy bills of up to a quarter in some cases, and possibly even more importantly; we've found that when people have small wind turbines installed, they actually become more energy aware. By seeing their meter ticking over when they generate electricity, and also ticking back when they use electricity, they become more conscious of how much they use. So they will switch lights off when they leave the room, they won't leave the TV on standby, and that actually is going to make a huge difference to reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Ali - So putting small wind turbines up doesn't just contribute to your household electricity but also changes your attitude.

Alison - That's possibly one of the most important points to consider about micro generation technologies. They're something that we come into contact with in our daily lives and do actually change our daily routines for the better.

Ali - My last question for you today is would you, Alison Hill, live next to a wind farm?

Alison - I would love to live next to a wind farm, I really would. My parents in Scotland are just in the process of buying a new house and my mother was quite upset when they had to sell the old one because she had a beautiful view of a wind farm from her kitchen window. She said she found it most soothing while she was doing the dishes. We have lots of people in the UK that deliberately buy houses that look out over wind farms, we have farmers that use the turbines as weather markers for their projects. So yes, wind energy, I think, is a beautiful thing. I would be delighted to live next to a wind farm and there are many thousands, if not millions of people out there in the UK who agree with me.

Ali - Ok, so we've heard briefly about wind power, which is a pretty established technology that these days we're all pretty familiar with. But what's next in renewable technology? A Company in Scotland has come up with a very cool new machine, which generates electricity by floating on top of the waves, and which looks like an enormous red worm. They built the world's first commercial wave farm, which was opened at the end of October, just last year. It's off the coast of Portugal and it consists of three of these machines, each with a capacity to generate 750 kW, in total enough for a couple of thousand homes. I asked Max Carcas from Ocean Power Delivery how they work.

Max - First of all, to describe what it looks like. If you image four train carriages out at sea, that's a bit what the machine looks like in terms of it's shape and size. The machine is moored at it's nose. And what happens is it points into the direction of oncoming waves. It's free to swing and point into those waves. And waves travel down the length of the machine and in doing so each of these 'train carriages' articulates both up and down, and side to side. That movement is resisted by hydraulic rams a bit like big bicycle pumps, which pump high pressure hydraulic fluid through hydraulic motors which turn generators.

Ali - What environmental impacts could the machines have?

Max - We certainly think that our footprint is very small. We have no fluids or greases in direct contact with seawater we've got no rapidly moving pieces of equipment in the water. It's fair to say we're biased of course but we think our environmental impact is actually one of the least of any of the main power generating technologies.

Ali - What about the comparative costs?

Max - The costs at this stage are higher, but that's because the technology is relatively immature. Like with all these technologies you've got to produce something and get it out there in volume in order to drive the cost down. And what gives us tremendous hope is that our opening costs are substantially below where wind started 20 or 25 years ago and substantially below the current costs of solar photovoltaics. So all the projections are that if we can really deliver into this market then wave energy has the potential to become one of the cheapest methods of generation.

Ali - Why do you think the development of wave power is lagging so far behind the development of wind power?

Max - I think it's a mix of things. The challenges are three fold. They're technical, to make something that works reliably and can cope with the conditions, they're commercial, to find the right partners to work with, but also importantly they're political. What we're trying to do here is what any business school would tell you not to do which is come up with a new product in what is after all a commodity market. Electricity's just a commodity and what comes out of the socket, you can't really differentiate. People don't brag about wave power electricity to their friends and enthuse about the electrons being made by artisan wave power engineers off the coast of Orkney. What's really required and has always been the case in energy technology is the feeder markets that can allow these things to go forward. If we can do that we can also build a major industry. If you look at wind turbines, it employs many 10s of thousands of people worldwide but sadly not so many in the UK, because we really missed the boat on that. So let's not miss it in wave energy.

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