How not to develop wave energy

Government to pump £20m into wave power generation

Well before they decided to go ahead with the Orkney marine energy development centre, I had made my findings clear to the idiots that ran so called “Scottish Enterprise” (an oxymoron) that they were going about it in entirely the wrong way.

The simple fact was that they said they were trying to reproduce the success of Denmark in wind energy. They had been told (by academics and other grant fed organisations) that  the key to success of Danish wind had been their wind research “institute” called Risø, and therefore by inference, the need was to create a research institute for Marine energy and to pump all the money to grant fed organisations (particularly academics) and … etc.

Of course it was complete codswallop! Risø was not a research institute, the people there weren’t academic, indeed the only research they could think of when I asked a member of the original group that formed Risø was “we went down to the scrapyard and ‘researched’ some lorry gearboxes for the windmill”.

In fact, Risø had next to nothing to do with the development of wind energy, except that it was a central body which allowed the cross fertilisation of ideas between the practical (farm machinery) companies that developed the initial wave of wind power that swept the world asunder.

So what created the Danish success?

Quite simply: numbers … or to be more exact, sufficient machines being run by critical customers for whom reliability was very important for them. Because the Danish scheme focussed on small windmills: just big enough for your average farmer, and the farmers were subsidised (only a sap to renewables because of Denmarks pro-nuclear goverment), but they needed the electricity to recoup their costs.

So, Danish wind had both the numbers of machines, and the reliability focus to quickly come down the learning curve and rapidly produce the world’s most reliable windmills.

So why did the British fail?

The UK spent some £50million on developing “wind turbines” (note the difference in nomenclature), this money was spent on perhaps a dozen high profile “white elephants”. Machines that cost an arm and a leg to put up, and each and everyone one “proved the viability of wind power” …. although “minor” teething problems had cut short the machines’ life.

But as soon as the entrepreneurs could be persuaded to back this viable British technology … they were absolutely sure that the engineers could solve the trivial problem of making sure they didn’t break down!

And that is why we failed: ATTITUDE! The attitude of those involved was that reliability was a very unimportant and trivial issue that could be solved later by someone else when it was “productionised” by those low lifes that would take the academic’s great research and put it into practice.

But the real problem of wind power, was that the machines simply couldn’t survive. Even today after decades of quality improvement, most windfarms have at least one idle machine which has broken down. Even today, the industry is still struggling with quality and reliability and the Danish wind industry has one of the toughest quality programs in the world. That is why they succeeded: dam stupid luck, that they funded the “development” in a way that forced the manufacturers to deal with large numbers of irate customers who simply would not tolerate machines that broke down. Right from the beginning, the people in charge of the Danish wind industry, were those who could solve the reliability problems causing hell to their customers. Right from the beginning, the namby pamby “reliability is someone else’s problem when we get around to employing some cheap engineers to productionise it” was thrown out the window.

The Failure of UK Marine

So, who do you think got the upper hand in the UK? Was it the (apparently none existent) wind industry which had been so successful at focussing on reliability in Denmark … or the prolific “renewables academics and grant fodder feeders” that had been such a dismal failure in the UK? … And still run the show!

A successful strategy for Marine

There is only one way to develop wave power: Lots and lots of machines, and lots and lots of customers, who get very angry when they break down.


Well, let’s take a simple example. The first few wave devices were notable for their tendency to “wonder”. Put another way, they kept breaking their anchorage. Just like the Danish wind industry had to focus on the (academically) boring gearbox (the bit that always failed), the marine renewables appeared to be suffering from the same problem of securing the devices in place.

Whilst I’ve had no direct involvement (thank goodness!), as far as I can see, anchorage is not even considered an area worth “research” in the UK. The fact that the devices still continue to break their anchors and wonder away is clearly “a minor problem which will be tackled by someone else when we productise our revolutionary invention”.

Another clear failure of the marine renewables companies was their total failure to think of maintenance at the design stage. I know, because I was working for a company that provided specialist access, and I could see that there was no way you could maintain these devices in situ without designing in some strategy to access them … and even then, it would be a pretty difficult thing to do, involving a lot of research and careful planning to achieve access. But talking to the marine renewables companies was like talking to a brick wall: “maintenance? Why do we need maintenance, we are going to design them so they don’t break down”.  HA HA HA HA HA!!!

They really hadn’t a clue. Of course they would break down, and of course they would need to be maintained, and realistically the whole success or failure was going to rest on how much maintenance they needed, and if they had such a pathetic attitude to maintenance they clearly had an organisation which had very little experience of in-field reliability: where “engineers” (i.e. those who know what to do to improve reliability) were very much the bottom of the pecking order (somewhere next to “sanitary engineers” and other toilet cleaners)


To be honest, I’m wasting my breath on this one. Once you get a certain group of people running the “industry” (in other words, taking the grants from government), the government have little choice but to keep going back to this cartel and …. throwing good money after bad, after more bad money, continually hearing the ever present claim of these charlatans that: “if the government would just throw us a lot more money then we would finally get our plans off the drawing board” … or the other one: “if the entrepreneurs would just put the money in and stop worrying about the petty teething problems which can certainly be solved in no time when (we the ruling elite who will always focus on getting grants) employ a few minor engineers to solve the minor problems of reliability which we are too important to have to deal with ourselves.

Big is not better.

Realistically, the Danish wind industry didn’t really develop a successful machine until there were some 10,000 machines in use. That was largely funded by the idiots of California renewables boom, but the how is less important than the absolute number.

So, let’s take a simple example. If a machine costs £10,000 and you need 10,000 machines, the total cost will be £100 million. What’s more, if each of these machines is owned by one customer, you have 10,000 people employed constantly checking the machines for quality. Even if they are owned in groups of ten, that’s 1000 FREE employees.

So, what do we do in the UK? We go for the biggest possible machines because: “Only the biggest can be cost effective” run by academics … or worse “for government” who don’t care a jot about how much energy they produce, just whether grant form is filled in right … and the minister has a nice back drop for their latest campaign for a renewable industry … so the biggest machine runs a few months, break down, the engineer is called up from mending the toilets to the MD’s office … they blink, wonder who on earth this guy is that is demanding to know why the machine that they never saw until the shit hit the fan …. failed.  … the engineer then goes through a long list of all the problems, from the lack of decent oil, to the way the toilets don’t flush properly, (all the time wondering why they did an engineering degree just to clean toilets).

The MD, then decides, that this is all very trivial stuff (except the toilets) and declares that “if we only had enough money to build the next machine they are sure they can solve all the minor technical problems” … etc. etc.

In short: we spend £20 million on a company to produce one or at most a few machines, we then expect it to work perfectly (which is just utter madness), then it fails, then the company asks for another £30, £40, £50 million to build an even bigger machine which is bound to fail just as pathetically … after which those in charge walk away with handsome benefits after their “huge success” … except the engineers who obviously get sacked for spending far too much time working out why the toilets didn’t flush.

And having spent hundreds of millions, we have at most a few dozen machines and are less than 1% of the way along the way down the learning/reliability curve. Even if we had billions, this strategy would be a complete failure,. even 10, 100billion WILL FAIL TO PRODUCE A VIABLE WAVE MACHINE IF YOU DON’T HAVE AN ENGINEERING/RELIABILITY FOCUS. Of course, even our politicians aren’t that stupid … to have to pour almost the whole Scottish budget into a scheme which has to produce some 10,000 machines before it has any real chance of creating one reliable enough to be deemed a real (commercial) success. But that won’t stop them trying!

Warning: all likenesses to any company or person real or alive or dead is obviously totally fictional … I would not wish to suggest that any company is failing in its engineering … so I have absolutely no doubt that their toilets do flush (allegedly).

… and any way … it’s not their fault … it’s the stupid culture of Britain … we can develop fighter jets that can bomb a chicken coop in Libya, but we just can’t create a renewable energy device that keeps working (except we can i.e. Proven wind … but no one listens to people who succeed … only to those who want more and more grants!)


The moral of the story, is that if you create 10,000 machines costing £1000, it’s costs £10million, if you produce 10,000 costing £1million, it costs £10billion. Obviously, at the end you have two different machines, but, once you have an industry focus on reliability, and you have a reliable small machine, the costs of scaling up by incremental steps using the tried and trusted engineering development cycle are relatively small. But perhaps a more realistic scheme would be:

  • 5,000x £1000 machines; = £5million
  • 2500x £3,000 = £7.5million (total= 12.5million)
  • 1250x £10,000 = £12.5million (total= 25million)
  •  600x £30,000 = £18million (total= 43million)
  • 300x £100,000 = £30million (total= 73million)
  • 150 £300,000 = £45million (total= 118million)
  • 80x £1million = £80million (total= 198million)
  • 40x £3million = 120million (total= 318million)
  • 20x £10million = 200million (total= 518million)
  • 10x £30million = 300million (total= 818million)

Total cost to get around 10,000 machines equivalent to the threshold for wind energy to become viable is around the 100-200million figure. Total cost for a “commercially viable” machine is likely to be closer the £1billion, but by that time perhaps half the cost is coming from commercial returns, meaning the total bill is closer to £500million, which may sound a lot, but when the UK is currently spending (wasting) £1billion a year on wind energy and we are “discussing” another £700million on the Edinburgh “tram”.

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7 Responses to How not to develop wave energy

  1. Pingback: ScottishSceptic on How Not To Develop Wave Energy « Musings on Interesting Things

  2. Neil Craig says:

    That attitide of “we’ll do the cool stuff and somebody else can make it reliable” is exactly the attitude that brought abouy the destruction of the R101 in 1930.

    That destroyed the British airship industry and killed the Air Minister of the time so let us hope Chris Huhne stands under one.

  3. I had that kind of attitude after I left University … but had it very quickly squashed after I got my first job. I “invented” a device for Timex … it took a week to do the “research” and then it took another 18 months work to get it to a state where it could be produced.

    The weird thing was that Timex (where I worked) regularly received letters through the post from “inventors” asking them to put money into this or that crackpot scheme. Some really were ludicrous (proton “or some other particle” – I think that was the phrase powered plants or something).

    I quickly learnt that “ideas” were ten a penny. Tell anyone you worked in “R&D” and they’d all have an idea. But putting those ideas into practical products was the real problem … and making them sell … that was like gold-dust.

    So, what do we focus on in the UK? Encouraging more and more people to think they can “invent” things, when the real problem of product development is productionising and selling them – something you can only learn from hands on experience – something that is rarer and rarer in the UK today. And to be frank, I really do blame people like the BBC for this “egg-head” “mad-inventor” myth that portrays human development as a series of one off crack-pot ideas that came from “scientists” with IQs of 950, and not the hard work of multi-discipline teams of engineers and commercial people without a crack-pot inventor in sight.

    • David Bailey says:

      I think you have hit the nail right on the head! Somehow Britain has become clogged up with layers of management and politicians that have lost all contact with the very purpose of the things they do.

      I mean, everyone knew that wind or tidal power could, in principle, drive a generator – it didn’t need demonstrating – it needed engineering! The trouble is, we gave up engineering more or less, to concentrate on “financial engineering”, we sacked all the civil servants who actually knew stuff, and replaced them with people who knew how to write contracts for others to do stuff…..

      I reckon anyone in the UK aged about 10 should focus their minds on becoming an engineer because by then the sh** will have really hit the fan in Britain, and there will be a desperate clamor to return to the old days!

  4. brothersmartmouth says:

    Two thoughts,
    Everything works on paper.
    It’s much easier to maintain a crystal ball.

    • But, if you are designing a fighter yet and you know the bit you are designing may wear out after 100 missions instead of 200 … but there’s going to be maintenance every mission what does it matter? They’re going to have to check it anyway!

      But if you are designing a bit for a windmill or wave machine, that’s only just economic, that sits in the middle of the North Sea, and isn’t going to be touched till the blade tips have done 1million miles (a year) … and your bit may or may not last till that 1million mile service … and one of the biggest annual costs is maintenance … and you tell your boss … we are going to have to reduce the interval between services (IE. GO FROM PROFIT TO LOSS) because this bit needs replacing more regularly than we thought.

      The big difference is that if you run a fighter yet, if bits wear out quicker than you thought … the small cost of maintenance rises … which is a small hassle, but you still go to war. Fundamentally it doesn’t affect its purpose. But on windmill or wavemachine, if the maintenance costs rise … as the maintenance costs are such a high proportion of the overall costs of running the thing it will easily turn it from “economic” to “unecomonic” and it just isn’t worth running the thing.

  5. Pingback: Britain in good hands | Orphans of Liberty

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