Interview with Neil Kermode, Managing Director, EMEC Orkney

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We had a lovely conversation with Neil Kermode, the Managing Director of EMEC Orkney, after meeting some of their wonderful staff at the All-Energy conference in Glasgow earlier this year. EMEC Orkney is one of the leading centres for marine energy in Europe, and much is being done there – with electricity already being channeled into the grid – at times supplying up to 25% of Orkney’s electricity needs. There is much here – well worth taking the time to read through. 

Neil Kermode, Managing Director, EMEC Orkney

What was the original idea behind the co-operation?

In April 2001, the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons recommended that the UK should position itself to capture the benefit arising from the emergence, development, and commercial implementation of marine renewables technologies through establishing a national offshore wave and tidal test centre. EMEC was established in 2003 in Orkney with the intention that ‘Scotland would become a world leader in energy production from wave and tidal power.’

Orkney provides an ideal base with its excellent oceanic wave regime, strong tidal currents, grid-connection, close proximity to sheltered harbor facilities, and a wealth of renewable, maritime, and environmental expertise within the local community. To date, EMEC is the world’s only centre to provide developers of both wave and tidal energy converters with purpose-built, accredited open-sea testing facilities. Having had more devices deployed in Orkney than at any other single site in the world, EMEC is a prime example of the economic benefits that a marine energy test facility can have on the local economy.

How far are we from the point of producing electricity by harnessing the power of waves and tidal streams would be widely available private consumers?

If you live in Orkney, it’s available now. A significant highlight for tidal energy was watching Orbital Marine Power (previously Scotrenewables) hit the 3 GWh generation milestone in just 12 months of testing at our grid-connected tidal test site, Fall of Warness in 2018. During this time, the SR2000 was supplying the equivalent annual electricity demand of around 830 UK households, and at times supplied over 25% of Orkney’s electricity demand.

The SR2000 has now been removed from the site to make way for an optimized production model, the Orbital O2. It has just been announced in recent weeks that this device is due to be built in Scotland, which will showcase the very best in Scottish engineering, before being installed at EMEC in the coming years. However, for the technology to roll out more widely to a level of commercialization, the sector requires full support from government and society alike in order for wave and tidal machines to be perfected through testing and demonstration.

Which one do you see with more potential at the moment: waves or tidal streams? Are there any particular problems with either one of them that is holding them back?

Wave energy is one of the largest untapped sources of renewable energy globally. The UK has approximately 35% of Europe’s wave resource crashing against its shores. However, anyone who has spent time at sea knows how quickly the conditions at sea can change, and being able to build machines to operate and survive at sea needs to be conquered, requiring repeat and determined exploration and testing. To date, wave energy has proved challenging due to the numerous concepts in extracting energy from waves is vast.

Although wave energy continues to demonstrate its ability in energy generation, tidal power is already well established and proven. The main advantage of tidal power is that it is very predictable, and tidal developers can take the predictability into consideration within the design stage of a tidal device. The tidal sector has made significant progress towards commercialization in recent years. The main challenge we face is that we haven’t tried hard enough. All technology sectors get better as you practice, and marine energy is no different. To deal with the challenges of building a new industry, we just need to get on with it and get metal wet.

At what stage is EMEC Orkney’s development currently at? What are the next steps?

Orbital Marine Power last year produced on average 7% of Orkney’s energy demand from one 2mw tidal turbine and are clearly showing tidal energy supplying the community day after day, week after week. In effect one day per fortnight, for much of 2018, Orkney was running on tidal electricity. We are delighted that Orbital is building their next machine to develop the concept further. We’ve also seen a Spanish floating tidal developer, Magallanes, come on-site in March 2019, and since deployment, they are expanding their generation envelope.

We have had wave energy developer Wello Oy, a Finnish company on-site at our grid-connected wave test site, Billia Croo, with their Penguin WEC1 device from March 2017 until March 2019. Within this two-year testing period, Wello survived 18-meter waves, which is some of the harshest waves EMEC has recorded in the history of the test site opening in 2003. In August 2019, Wello successfully towed their 2nd iteration of the Penguin to Orkney from a shipyard in Tallinn, where the device was built. We look forward to welcoming Wello back on-site at Billia Croo in the near future.

Within this two year testing period, Wello survived 18-meter waves, which is some of the harshest waves EMEC has recorded in the history of the test site opening in 2003.

Neil Kermode
Wello Penguin

Another highlight in recent years was the deployment of Microsoft’s 450 kW underwater data center at EMEC’s Billia Croo wave energy test site in June 2018 (announced by the BBC). Led by Naval Group, the data center was installed by Green Marine and is as powerful as several thousand high-end consumer PCs, with enough storage for approximately five million movies. The project is part of Microsoft’s ongoing quest for cloud data center solutions that are less resource-intensive and offer rapid provisioning, lower costs, and high agility to meet the needs of cloud users around the world. Deepwater deployment offers ready access to cooling, a controlled environment, and has the potential to be powered by co-located renewable power sources. The data center remains on-site today and could continue testing at EMEC for up to five years, and we’re very excited to be involved in such a globally significant project that will shape the future of data storage.

EMEC has recently expanded its portfolio, and we are proud to say Orkney is leading the way in hydrogen development and is being viewed as an international example of how to develop a hydrogen economy. EMEC is playing a vital role in Orkney’s story through our continued involvement in demonstration. As a result, the message that hydrogen is key to the energy transition is gaining momentum, and hydrogen is receiving significant political acknowledgment at a national and European level. This shows how tackling technology challenges itself leads to further innovation. It is an exciting time for EMEC and Orkney, whilst the opportunities to improve our energy system appear boundless.

How is your community, and what are your preferred platforms? Are any parts of the community involved in development?

EMEC is very fortunate to have such widespread community support across the Orkney Islands, and the UK as a whole, and indeed the levels of engagement in energy issues is often remarked upon by visitors to Orkney. The uptake of solar and small wind along with community wind turbines now means that around 10 percent of the Orkney community generate their own power. There is clearly a local ambition to do much more in which we can continue to profit from the energy revolution.

Which technology do you see as the most important for EMEC Orkney in the next five years?

EMEC is an independent test and demonstration centre for wave and tidal energy technologies, and many marine energy prototypes have tested at EMEC over the years. To date, more marine energy converters have been deployed at EMEC than anywhere else in the world, with 20 clients (spanning 11 European countries) having demonstrated 32 marine energy devices. You can find information on all of them below: &

As an independent test facility, it is not our place to ‘judge’ the best, but rather facilitate all technologies to test and demonstrate. There are some projects that have shown significant progress over the last couple of years:

  • Orbital Marine Power: – currently developing their next-generation technology for testing at EMEC in 2020 as part of FloTEC project. Their SR2000 floating tidal turbine generated over 3 GWh of renewable electricity during the year of testing over 2017/18, supplying the equivalent annual electricity demand of around 830 UK households from just one prototype device.
  • MeyGen: which has deployed newer iterations of two technologies that were previously tested at EMEC: Atlantis and Andritz. MeyGen is the world’s first tidal energy array and has generated over 12 GWh from four turbines so far.

How do you see your local energy market changing in the foreseeable future?

Energy is becoming personal. With so many people generating their own power with the council supporting wind energy development and local realization of the energy mix, Orkney is expecting to pioneer new markets. Orkney has already seen the integration of heat transport, and electricity is underway.

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