Thursday, 25 June 2009

The tide has turned

What happens when you try to generate electricity by putting a wind turbine in the water?

The answer turns out to be 1.2MW and a few grey hairs. Peter Fraenkel, the technical brains behind SeaGen spent a fascinating hour or so taking a crowd of engineers through the technical and commercial difficulties of designing a world first. SeanGen at Strangford Lough is the world’s first tidal electricity generator and it is now producing and selling its electricity.

It is a fascinating concept and I am not being entirely serious when I say it’s a wind turbine in the water, although it does work on similar principals. Two huge turbines are able to operate bi-directionally in order to capture energy from the ebb and flood of the tides.

The difficulties of designing and installing something that operates in fast tidal currents are substantial and the team at
Marine Current Turbines have more than their share of war stories to tell. The day we broke a 16m blade had to be one of the best. Strong enough to hang 5 buses off, it was not strong enough to withstand the power of the tides when it was tilted the wrong way due to a systems fault. But this is clearly a company with a steely determination and Fraenkel’s tales of the unexpected demonstrated time and again that nothing would get in their way.

It’s a story of British engineering at its best.

Now that commercial electricity is being generated from SeaGen, however, new issues raise their heads above the water. Scaling up the concept and ensuring that profits are made out of the enormous monetary and technical effort that has gone into it are at least as challenging as what has gone before. It would be nice to think that this plucky British company will be handsomely rewarded for their substantial contribution to our sustainable energy options. Only time will tell. But after what they have come through so far I suspect they will put up a pretty good fight.

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