Why has wave energy flopped in the U.K.?

Experts are blaming “a fundamentally over-optimistic view, on the part of government and industry,” on the failure to achieve commercialization, despite endless promises from startups.

A new study, written by researchers at the University of Strathclyde and Imperial College London, doesn't mince words. It blames wave energy boosters for fast-tracking commercial development and skimping on basic research, leading to failures and falling confidence in the sector.

The result: The wave industry has burned through GBP £200 million (USD $264 million) since 2000, with very little progress to show.

“In a bid to secure the private-sector match funding they needed to access public subsidies, developers presented an over-optimistic view of how quickly wave energy could reach commercial application to market incumbents in order to attract investment,” said the report.

“In turn, many developers failed to fulfill investors’ expectations against the ambitious targets, seriously damaging the legitimacy of wave energy technology.”

Wave power’s failure stands in stark contrast to progress in tidal energy.

Since the U.K. started supporting both industries at the turn of the century, the country has seen 26 tidal stream device deployments, culminating in commercial installations such as the 6-megawatt MeyGen 1A plant, which became fully grid-connected last month.

The size of tidal turbines has increased steadily, with the average rated capacity going up by 124 percent between 2015 and 2017.

In contrast, the average rated capacity of wave machines fell by 70 percent over the same period. Only 16 devices have made it into the water this century, and instead of inching toward commercial success, the industry has been marred by the collapse of major players.

The biggest to fall was Pelamis, which tested two 591-foot-long wave generators at the European Marine Energy Centre in Stromness on Scotland’s Orkney Islands. The company went into administration in November 2014. 

A similar fate befell Aquamarine Power, a Queen’s University spin-out that tried to commercialize a wave machine called the Oyster. The company raised £11 million ($15 million) in 2009, but ceased trading in November 2015. 

In fairness, the tidal stream business has seen its share of corporate failures, too. Last year, for example, a Welsh developer called Tidal Energy Limited went into administration after testing a 400-kilowatt prototype of a machine called the DeltaStream.

And in 2014, award-winning startup Pulse Tidal flat-lined after failing to scale up a 100-kilowatt demonstration machine to 1.2-megawatt commercial size. But more recently, the tidal stream industry seems to have found its footing in the U.K.

Whether the country can replicate this success in wave energy remains to be seen -- particularly as the U.K. moves into uncharted waters with its decision to leave the European Union.  

The researchers recommend trying to hold onto EU innovation funding after Brexit. 

Neil Kermode, managing director of the European Marine Energy Centre, said there's good reason to carry on support for marine renewable technology after the split. “We do seem to realize that we still need to have something in which we excel, and marine energy fits exactly into the box,” he said.

Elsewhere, the U.K.’s failures have not dampened enthusiasm for further attempts.

In Australia, for example, Carnegie Clean Energy last month announced plans for a wave energy project with funding from the Western Australian Government and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

“Wave energy is the last globally untapped renewable resource, and in the best locations, it delivers energy 24/7,” said Carnegie chief executive Dr. Michael Ottaviano in an ARENA news report

That may be so. But the challenge, in markets from the U.K. to Australia, is still how to make it work. 

There's almost no public performance data, no early-stage success, and no commercialization in the space.