Not drowning, but waving...

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Alan Whitehead, MP warns the government's decision to axe the Marine Renewables Deployment Fund risks throwing away the UK's technology lead

When I was a student many, many years ago, I recall the forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party, I think it was, running around the campus intoning the names of the four Marxist 'greats': "Marx! Engels! Lenin! Trotsky!". And I smile slightly in memory as I hear today's four 'balanced energy mix' greats similarly intoned: "Coal! Gas! Nuclear! Renewables!".

The problem they had back then was how Marx could have been a 'Marxist', and today the problem is how can 'renewables' be regarded as one thing when it comes to energy? And even worse, there's the coda to this 'one thing' reference: '...and of course you've got to be careful with renewables because they're so intermittent, you know?'

Google 'balanced energy mix' and you'll see what I mean.

The truth is that renewables are getting on for a balanced energy mix in their own right. They just look a bit variable because right now there's a lot of that kind (wind, solar PV) around and rather less of the other kinds, such as wave and tide (less variable) and biomass (not at all).

I had this in mind when I spoke to the Renewable UK Marine and Tidal Energy event at the House of Commons last week and I said so to the assembled throng, who had brought with them in exhibition form an impressive array of ...well ... arrays: Pelamis, the sea monster wave machine, Tidal Power and International Energy's tidal stream turbines, the wave hub and other devices in development.

And the remarkable thing about them is that - modest power providers they are currently - collectively they represent a world lead in wave and tidal deployment.

At 2.4MW installed, it does indeed sound modest, but most are in the latter stages of the hurdle race, from concept to prototype to provable model to full production. RenewableUK and some government reports suggest that by 2020, we could be looking at an investment of £3.7bn per annum and 1.6GW installed.

And here comes the but... But only if there is a funding stream to get them to the end of the development process. The Marine Renewables Deployment Fund, The government's ring-fenced capital funding programme, will be ending in March next year. A £200m DECC renewable fund replaces it, but marine (I think) stands a strong chance of being crowded out; and we face, potentially the prospect of yet another UK lead technology lead dissipating and eventually being picked up elsewhere, to great benefit.

Set against that is the sheer scale of the resource we have in abundance the UK: the strongest tidal streams and the most powerful wave systems in Europe; both only modestly variable, and completely predictable.

They need, probably a favourable ROC or future feed in tariff regime to cover getting to market, and a fair degree of up-front capital funding to deploy the next round of immediately pre-commercial arrays. Earmarking part of the DECC low-carbon technologies fund would help. In fact it would help a lot.

So that's what I'm going to be asking the minister about in the next few weeks, hopefully with some Parliamentary colleagues to support me. And if, when we meet he tells me we need a 'balanced energy mix', well...

This post first appeared on Alan's Energy Blog

Dr Alan Whitehead is the Labour Member of Parliament for Southampton Test. He is a member of the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, as well as the Environmental Audit Select Committee, and has sat on the Public Bill Committees for every major piece of UK energy and climate change legislation in recent years, including the Climate Change Act 2008. He also chairs a number of cross-party groups on these issues.

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