Wave power is a really, really stupid idea. That’s why it’s getting so much taxpayer subsidy

Civil servants think they can transform our clean energy prospects. The market doesn’t agree. But you’re paying for their hunch anyway

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

The surface of the sea is a hostile and unforgiving place. Although it covers 71 per cent of the planet, nothing much bigger than a speck lives there. Obviously, lots of slimy and scaly things swim around beneath the surface — but on the very top, pretty much zilch. Mother Nature has found niches for life in the desert, the Arctic and deep underground but, after 4.5 billion years of trying, she is passing on the surface of the sea, thanks all the same.

Now you would think that this very long experiment in trying to evolve life in a hostile environment would act as some kind of hint to the nice people at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). You would think — if Mother Nature cannot persuade even a simple plant to make its home there, then what chance does a lowly civil servant have?

You would think that given this, DECC would focus its subsidy efforts on the proven technology of solar panels, wind turbines and reducing waste at energy plants. You would think all of these things, but you would be wrong.

Against all the evidence, DECC has decided that the surface of the sea is just the place to build power stations, and is cheerfully spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money trying to make this work.

I suspect the reason the department is so fixated on this is that 10 per cent of the UK’s base energy needs are potentially available in the waves of the North Atlantic as they crash onto our shores. To turn that potential into reality, DECC is allocating an enormous subsidy of five Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) per hour for wave energy. This is the equivalent of about £220 for every hour of electricity produced. The equivalent subsidy for boring ground-mounted solar is £61.

Despite the size of this carrot, industry is still not really biting when it comes to wave energy. There are a few stalwarts trying to make power with weird snake-like things bobbing around on the surface, but the big boys of the engineering world are steering well clear. Making profitable electricity in a salty, wet and windy environment that constantly moves up and down is not the easiest engineering challenge in the world and maybe it’s best if somebody else has a go first.

However, despite the reluctance of most of the world’s engineering industry to play ball, DECC ploughs on and are now developing the snappily titled Marine Energy Array Demonstrator (Mead). In essence, this is a government-funded initiative where you get to prove that your bobby wave thing really can survive for long periods on the surface of the sea. Trust me. Honestly it will.

I think this illustrates two things. The first is that despite its neoliberal protestations, the government and its civil servants still believe that, for most problems, the state knows better than the market. Here is a situation where both nature and industry are saying this won’t work, but the state thinks it will, so we taxpayers are being asked to back a hunch. DECC may protest and talk about acting as a provider of development capital, all those platitudes, but fundamentally the department is saying it doesn’t believe that markets are canny enough to spot the opportunity — and Whitehall is. Such hubris is the starting point for wasting a lot of money. If you could make profits from the surface of the sea, then the private sector would have begun to do so a long time ago. That’s what markets do: spot opportunities, develop technology and make money.

The second thing is how dependent the renewables industry has become on subsidy. The government recently commissioned a report on wave power, and one of the most consistent messages coming from the market was that more subsidy was needed. Just one more ROC per hour, then we will all be OK.

This is not just a criticism of wave power technologies, it pervades a lot of the more marginal renewable technologies currently being developed. Whenever DECC issues a consultation paper on energy, industry representative groups clamour like birds in a nest to receive the juicy subsidy worms. The more mature technologies like wind and solar have long outgrown this dependency, but their less mature siblings know they must continue to receive DECC’s largesse in order to survive.

So despite the apparently huge potential beating in on our shores, I am pretty sure that wave power is not going to transform this country into the Saudi Arabia of western Europe. Blackpool is not going to look like Riyadh any time soon. The surface of the sea remains the least hospitable place on the planet to do anything, and all the well–intentioned but misguided state intervention in the world is not going to change that.

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  • jerymp

    Why have you ignored tidal stream and tidal lagoon technology?

  • Sane anti-ideologue

    The headline refers to tidal power. But you’re talking about wave power. Very different things!!

    • Dr K

      Exactly. With the continuing development of low-head (low pressure) turbines and with certain parts of the UK’s coastline having very favourable tidal conditions (very long, shallow beaches in North Wales and Blackpool for example), it’s possible to see the numbers stacking up.

      • Tim

        not to mention the bristol channel! Clevedon has the second highest tidal range in the entire world.

        • global city

          the eco-bods killed that one… part of their drive of stagnation through hypocrisy. Support a technology until it is accepted at the cost of other sources, then come down and dump on any scheme proposed as bad for the environment.

    • Bonkim

      Don’t expect a journalist to distinguish between the different ways energy from wave, tide, and ocean currents can be harnessed to generate power.

      • tjamesjones

        This might be a good point but I think the culprit is the subeditor. The article is clearly talking about the problems of wave power. If they fix the heading, then it is an interesting article and rings true to me.

        • Aberrant_Apostrophe

          Looks like someone at the DT actually reads the comments, as the title has now been edited…

          • tjamesjones

            power to the people aa

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Wonders will never cease.

          • post_x_it

            How does that work then? Someone at the DT reads the comments, and the headline in the Speccie changes?

          • Aberrant_Apostrophe

            Obviously they pass on typo errors to their mates at the Speccie, and vice versa.

            Yes, I know I erred, but they do both use Disqus and many people comment on both.

  • Tim

    As people have already stated, the author is confusing wave and tidal power, which is frankly unforgivably idiotic.
    Then he makes the bizarre assertion that nothing lives on the ocean’s surface. One can only assume that Mr. Ware has neither visited nor heard of the Sargasso sea, named after a plant (well, technically an alga, but a highly adapted and macroscopic one) that has adapted to do precisely what he claims isn’t possible. And that’s not to mention organisms like Vellela, which often wash up in their droves on our Atlantic coast during algal blooms.

    Admittedly this can all be dismissed as pedantry, but if it calls into question the researching skills of the author, then why should we believe his other assertions? The UK energy mix does matter, even if you’re one of the many nutters in the Coffee House that think they know better than 97% of the world’s climate scientists. Regardless of what it does to the atmosphere, we’re approaching a period of diminishing returns for fossil fuel extraction, and developing the right alternative technologies is necessary. To get any technology ready for market there are R&D costs, and it is right that the government should contribute to these in the form of subsidies. As we don’t want to waste our money, we’d better pick the correct ones, and not conflating one with another is an important first step!

    • Tom M

      Oh dear, I presume that you haven’t seen the report that took the “97% of scientists” claim apart then. I’ll dig it put if you ask but the claim dissolved aparently into the publisher of the report “choosing” a certain limited number of papers and asking several students to read through them and note if anything said was in any way supportive of AGW. So, surprise then 97% of his choice of papers by his criterea supported AGW. Very scientific and people like you buy this without question!
      As to your claim of necessary government subsidies to kick start a technology is laughable in it’s naivety. I can’t remember governments kick starting mobile phones or flat screen televisions. In those technologies the governments charged money to put them on the market!
      Tidal power? As far as I am aware there is only one working commercially in Europe in France at Rance (spell?). Read up on the accumulated data and perhaps understand why is is all alone.
      “As we don’t want to waste our money”?? Just what do you think they have been doing with all the green subsidies and tax that has been imposed on the consumer for the last 15 years? Do you really think that closing down coal fired power stations in the UK well before their expected lifespan on some unproven dream isn’t wasting money?

      • Peter Stroud

        Absolutely right. What could be more stupid than closing down a perfectly serviceable coal fired power station: then converting it to burning wood, imported from the USA?

      • Right, you can’t convince someone that papers x and y are correct by pointing to paper z, if all paper z says is, “Yes, x and y are indeed correct, do not question them anymore.” That’s not really how science works.

    • mrdavidjohnson

      Oh dear, not the 97% nonsense again

  • Jesse

    “All of the engineering big boys are steering clear.” Except for Alstom, Siemens and GE. Did any fact checking take place here?

    • Daniel, Oxford

      They were steering clear until they were bribed with subsidies, in the same way as happened for wind turbines and solar farms.

      • greggf

        Daniel – I think you’ll find solar photo-voltaic energy is competitive under the right conditions.

        • Peter Stroud

          So why the subsidies?

          • greggf

            It depends what and where you mean.
            PV solar farms may compete for land area. But subsidies have been recently cut back in UK. Subsidies for UK domestic use will be stopped altogether in 2 years.
            Other countries in Southern Europe, Japan etc provide no more subsidies than for conventional energy sorces.
            Storage (batteries) is a necessary support for solar but this has spin-off value.
            Manufactureof PV units is a contentious trade issue between China and the rest which may affect prices.

      • Gabriel

        And nuclear power stations, lets not forget.

  • global city

    The Green party have been promoting this, saying that wave energy has proven spectacularly effective…as they have said before about every silly ‘renewable’ scam.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    I only get to read the first six lines, but that`s enough to know it`s a dumbed down piece of “”””.

  • canute

    Agree with posted comments… daft article. Factual inaccuracies galore. No research seems to have gone into it. Spec tried to salvage it by changing headline – as if that’s the only problem. If they’ve paid this guy, they should ask for money back.

  • I think the idea is that if the state subsidizes an initial investment, then the cost of entry will be low enough to allow private enterprise to take over. That sort of makes sense, until you consider just how much investment capital there is floating around looking for a safe bet. That’s why studio apartments in Hong Kong cost millions. It’s also why an app that does nothing but send the word “yo” raised $1M in “seed funding.” So if that sort of thing can find investors, but wave power can’t, it’s not entirely unreasonable to conclude that there isn’t much potential profit in the latter.

    • Duncan Frame

      Wave energy is a long term investment, just as research in fusion power is a long term investment. So investing in an app which is likely to maximise returns in the short term is not really a like for like comparison.

  • Diggery Whiggery

    “Wave power is a really, really stupid idea. That’s why it’s getting so much taxpayer subsidy”

    My initial optimism that I was about to read an intelligent article was cruelly dashed on reading this:

    “You would think that given this, DECC would focus its subsidy efforts on the proven technology of solar panels, wind turbines”

    and confirmed on reading this:

    “The second thing is how dependent the renewables industry has become on subsidy.”

    Dependency on subsidy means the technology is anything but proven.

  • Andy Rojes

    It is Harry Reid and Senate democrats who refused to compromise.

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    Economic thinking is on its head in Britain.

    We raise house prices for uninsulated shacks to yet unseen levels making them unaffordable for the next generation of owner-occupiers, and that is somehow right – yet raising the energy generation game, taking an R&D lead in a sector and hence producing more electricity at home rather than continuing to rely on imported fuel sources is somehow not?
    Queue the Russian coal and Norwegian gas merchants to oppose this view …

  • saffrin

    The EU’s recycling is a really, really bad idea yet we are doing it.
    Or at least the way UK councils are going about it.
    Talk about dumb and dumber.

  • Jorge Orwell

    It isn’t the intentions of liberals’ moral and fiscal bankruptcy that we have to live with, it is the consequences.

    • Duncan Frame

      That’s like complaining about a ripple after still suffering the effects of the tsunami that was the banking crash of 2007/8.

  • Oliver John

    Although a couple of people are claiming the article is factually inaccurate, nobody is pointing any inaccurate facts out.

    Surely the most salient fact is that, after millions of pounds of Government subsidy and years of development, there are still no commercial scale wave plants anywhere in the World.

    I think the author is quite rightly pointing out that pursuing this chimera may not be the best use of taxpayer’s money.

    Ask yourself honestly, would you buy shares in a wave power development company ? and if not, then why are the Government doing it on your behalf?

  • Duncan Frame

    I wonder what the ROI is for other nascent technologies like fusion power.

  • Tim

    This is all correct. Google Carnegie CETO garden island. this is a fully submerged system that harnesses wave power to create either fresh water or zero emission electricity. Quite an amazing technology.

  • Shenandoah

    Wind turbines? You must be joking.

    As for solar panels: nice in a hot climate for running street lamps and warming up swimming pools a little more than the sun does by itself (I know: I have ’em). Notice the key phrase: ‘hot climate’. Since when did Britain fit that description?

  • scott_east_anglia

    A big problem is the maths-science-engineering-any-difficult-subject-free education of many politicians, along with a proliferation of lawyers.

    Engineers know that the only two energy sources that can power a western civilisation are hydrocarbon fuels and nuclear fission. That has been the case since the 1950s and remains so today.

    There is simply not enough energy in wind, waves and the UK sun to make the effort of extracting it for national power generation worth while.

    Furthermore, the intermittent nature of all of the renewable sources requires backup from powered up spinning thermal power stations. Therefore, since we have to have the thermal power stations anyway, we don’t need the renewable systems at all.

    However, the politicians thought they knew better than the engineers, and after wasting billions of pounds have succeeded in proving that the engineers were right all along, as they always are about engineering matters.

    The real humdinger, though, is the total lack of any real evidence that changes to the concentration of atmospheric CO2 have ever had any effect on the climate.

    Not only that, but because the greenhouse effect occurs in the sky where the air is very cold, heat (originally from the warmer Earth’s surface) cannot flow from gases in the sky to the warmer surface below, because heat cannot flow from a cooler body to a warmer one. The so-called greenhouse effect as advertised by the IPCC propaganda always was impossible.

    We are therefore looking at a criminal scam by people who believe they are immune from censure and beyond the reach of the law. The politicians can claim ignorance (lying and stupidity can be taken as read). However warmist physics BSc holders might find it harder to escape when the penny finally drops and the tax payers realise they have been defrauded of billions if not trillions.

  • Pete Mitchell

    Fear mongering is the primary tactic of today’s liberals and democrats: http://youtu.be/L9rTP6-57HE?t=16s

  • coalgateOps

    In 2012, the Federal deficit was three times higher than any deficit incurred during George W. Bush�s two Presidential terms.

  • Ben Lucy

    Firstly, there are over 100,000 ships in the sea, as well as oil rigs and offshore wind turbines. It is not the insurmountably hostile environment that the author describes.

    Secondly, the author believes that if something is viable and potentially profitable, companies would lead the way thanks to capitalism. “If you could make profits from the surface of the sea, then the private sector would have begun to do so a long time ago”.

    However, there are numerous examples where an industry required huge risk and capital investment to overcome the initial research and design stages. With these types of projects governments get involved because companies won’t take the risk. Once the technology has matured, it becomes commercialised.

    The most blatantly obvious examples are wind and solar power, which wouldn’t be mature without government development and subsidy. The author seems to think that since wind and solar have outgrown government dependency there is no need to develop other technologies, as if the problem of energy has been solved.

    Other examples are nuclear power, the internet, satellite launching and GPS.