The billionaire inventor Sir James Dyson didn’t get where he is today without knowing a good idea when he sees one and so when he includes a device in a list of his four favourite innovations, we think it’s worth paying attention. In 2010, he gave just such an accolade to Anaconda, a novel wave energy-capture device. “It’s this kind of technology that will change the way we power Britain”, he wrote.
He was not exaggerating. In October 2012, the Carbon Trust/Amec report estimated that the UK has the potential to generate between 50-70 TWh/yr of power from wave energy every year. Given that Scotland consumes just 24.17 TWh/yr, the scale of the global opportunity is clear for all to see.
Fast forward eight years and development of Anaconda has stalled in controversial circumstances following the decision by Wave Energy Scotland (WES), a subsidiary of the Scottish government’s economic and community development agency, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, to stop supporting the project in January of 2019.
Despite the tender documents specifying on the cover sheets that all eligible devices should be ‘novel’, the two companies that have been approved for Tier 3 funding are working on evolutions of old existing technologies rather than entirely new or novel concepts.
What’s more, WES is refusing to reveal the background and expertise of the members of a powerful star chamber that advised on which companies merited further cash, on the grounds that it would be a breach of data protection rules.
A cynic might argue that it is something of a coincidence that the company that lost out in the final round of funding from the Inverness-based WES is Checkmate, who were the only contestant with a truly novel wave energy converter outside Scotland.
The invention consists of a rubber tube and, depending on the wave climate and the power required, the tube can range from 50m in length with a 3m diameter to 150m length with a diameter of 5m. This in turn is then filled with seawater and closed at both ends. Once anchored in the sea, with one end facing oncoming waves, ‘bulge waves’ are excited or created inside the tube as each passing outer wave squeezes the distensible tube. As the bulge wave moves down the tube the sea wave that created it runs along the outside at the same speed making the bulge wave inside grow larger. It is these series of bulge waves inside the tube that in turn feed a power-generating turbine at Anaconda’s far end.
We hold patents across the World from USA to South Africa to protect this unique intellectual property.
In the early days some initial research funding was provided by the Carbon Trust, a government-supported body whose mission is to ‘accelerate the move to a low-carbon economy’. Further significant funding was provided by the company.
Then the project encountered its first hurdle; the Carbon Trust became a victim of the government’s austerity programme. In 2011 its budget was cut by 40%, 35 staff were made redundant and Anaconda was one of the projects that lost its funding.
By 2015 we were ready to give up on the project. But then WES came into the picture. As a result, we applied for a grant for services from WES and secured Stage 1 funding of some £300,000. Anaconda made a successful transition to Stage 2, as the results were promising, and this brought a second injection of £720,000 to further prove the technology in more detailed wave-tank testing.
Since 2016 scale models of the Anaconda have been put through their paces in wave tanks at three world-class laboratories; the Kelvin laboratory in Strathclyde University, Flowave in Edinburgh University and the Lir Laboratory in University College Cork.
We were also able to demonstrate that the life expectancy of each tube in constant 24-hour operation would likely be in excess of 12 years. This was an important finding, as one of the main problems associated with more rigid structures is that they have historically found it impossible to overcome the challenge presented by long-term survivability and freak waves.
By the time it came to awarding Stage 3 payments the field had been narrowed down from eight concepts to four. We felt that we were very well placed, as the power output evidenced by the tests was excellent and a sensible cost of energy for power generation was in sight and we were aware that the other devices appeared to be offering ‘recycled’ technology that was not ‘novel’. We did recognise that it might be argued that competing devices had improved the technology in some way, but they were all based on old technology and patents, whereas Anaconda is totally novel, unique in every way.
Much to our surprise we were rejected from Stage 3, which would have given us the £3.3 million we needed to undertake sea trials with a real-time quarter-scale device and back up the results obtained from wave tank trials.
Cash that was vital, as testing in scale model form of 1/25 using a distensible material such as rubber meant that the tolerances with the manufacture of that scale of tube were incredibly fine. To create a rubber tube only a few millimeters in thickness is remarkably difficult and even with the best technology available variances were inevitable. No wave tank in the world is large enough to accommodate an Anaconda device of quarter scale, the size proposed for a sea trial, thus the results arising from such an open water test are so important.
The result was even more galling because we had put up additional funds to meet the WES targets by commissioning additional technical testing in Eire. In the statement that announced the winners, Tim Hurst, managing director of WES, said: “these state-of-the-art designs represent the most advanced and innovative devices in the UK today”. We think that is simply not the case.
So are we correct in saying that our competitors, Mocean Energy and AWS Ocean Energy, are merely rehashing established technology?
Mocean secured its funding for Blue Horizon, a wave energy device that consists of two floating hulls connected by a hinge. Waves cause motion at the hinge, which drives a generator. One of Mocean’s co-founders is Chris Retzler, who happens to be the same Chris Retzler who helped to set up Pelamis Wave Power in 1998. That company also relied upon a device consisting of two floating bodies connected by a hinge. Sadly, it called in the administrators in 2014 after ploughing through 95 million pounds of funding (source The Guardian October 2016) and, interestingly, its intellectual property was eventually acquired by Wave Energy Scotland itself.
A patent attorney hired by us to consider to what extent Mocean’s concept was novel concluded: “the basic concept of the Mocean product appears to have been known since the early 1980s”.
AWS, meanwhile, was awarded funding for its Archimedes Waveswing technology, which consists of a series of buoys moored to the ocean floor that harness the energy of the sea by reacting to changes in sub-sea water pressure caused by passing waves and converting the resulting motion to electricity via a direct-drive generator.
Our patent attorney concluded: “the basic concept of the AWS device has been known generally since the early 1990s and specifically since 2008”.
By now we were sufficiently wound up to call in legal advice. Unfortunately for us, they advised that the adjudicating body had a fig leaf of justification for its decision.
The small print of the original contract allowed Wave Energy Scotland to claim that if an existing technology came along that had been improved, they could call that novel, however as our patent attorney said, “that’s a bit of a moot point because either it’s novel or it isn’t”.
We turned our attention to the independent panel of experts that had been appointed to advise WES on the winning bids. In response to a request filed under the Freedom of Information Act, WES furnished us with a list of names.
It revealed that there was no one sitting on that panel that we or our technical partners know of who possess any elastomeric/rubber engineering experience. We were only provided with the names, rather than any information about the individuals and why they’d been selected. While civil and mechanical engineers are in good supply, elastomeric specialists, who work with flexible materials and the mechanics arising, is a highly specialised field.
One of the external assessors worked for one of the successful candidates some years ago. While there is no suggestion that the assessor behaved improperly in any way, it is perhaps surprising that a government-funded body would appoint someone with such a potential conflict of interest.
The decision to discontinue funding for the Anaconda project is only the latest setback to a sector whose history is marked by aborted projects and technological failure. The challenge of generating power from the ocean waves at an economic rate has vexed inventors for years. While wind and solar energy devices have advanced in leaps and bounds, their marine equivalents have been left behind. This is partly down to the level of investment involved.
The scale of development funds ploughed into wind and solar dwarfs the investment in wave or tidal initiatives, despite the fact that we are an island nation with easy access to a potentially massively rewarding resource.
A number of marine-based devices have failed in the last decade and, as 2020 is upon us, only a radically new approach to exploiting the power of the sea will reap rewards.
Keen observers of wave energy converter (WEC) technology will note the common features across many historical initiatives, a force generated between a wave-activated oscillating body and a second reacting body, or seabed reference, is used to drive a power take-off (PTO) system. No matter how innovators have sliced and diced this approach, the same torpedoes have sunk them.
The nail in the coffin is a stubborn insistence that the power generated must compete with grid-connected renewable electricity within unrealistic investment time horizons. There are lots of ways to make sustainable grid electricity and none of the emerging WEC ideas have been able to demonstrate the potential to be more attractive than solar photovoltaics or offshore wind in the near or long-term. Wave Energy Scotland’s flagship Novel Wave Energy Converter (NWEC) programme proposed to prove otherwise.
However, observers have noted with surprise and resignation that WES are now backing sea trials of two old technologies both of which appear to offer nothing novel. Proving that these same fundamental issues have been overcome with tweaks to ageing technology that has failed in the past will be a huge challenge.
There are thousands and thousands of islands around the world, all of which have coasts on which you could install Anacondas tuned to specific wave climates. This would create local jobs, local support and maintenance opportunities. Then the diesel electric generators can be stood down and run only if they need to as an emergency standby.
Anaconda, the doyen of Sir James Dyson, languishes in a backwater. Where WES could have been a catalyst for change in giving truly novel inventions such as Anaconda the space to develop, it has not and in our view it has failed to deliver on its public remit.
The Anaconda technology works. We have not given up hope of persuading purses to open that will allow an Anaconda device to undergo serious open ocean trials to finally prove that the results from extensive wave tank testing can be replicated or indeed improved at sea.