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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

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'Green energy' scheme to span Solway Firth?

Ground-breaking green energy technology could be generating electricity in the Solway Firth by 2020.

Nigel Catterson photo
Nigel Catterson

Surrey company VerdErg Renewable Energy tested its spectral marine energy converter (SMEC) on an old weir spillway on the River Caldew in Dalston in December.

The device harnesses the flow of water to generate electricity.

Cumbrian businessman Nigel Catterson says the test was a success. He is confident that the technology can be used on a grander scale in the Solway.

Mr Catterson is behind plans for the Utropia eco-development in west Cumbria.

He has been toying with ways of exploiting tidal energy in the Solway since 2005. He founded and chairs the Solway Energy Gateway and sits on the board of Britain’s Energy Coast.

Although initially attracted to the idea of a barrage, he says SMEC technology would cause far less ecological and environmental damage.

While a barrage would block the estuary, SMECs would be attached to the stanchions of a bridge, allowing water to flow at all times.

Mr Catterson said: “Compared with a barrage, you don’t get the same peaks of power but you get a longer period of power generation. I’m sure it’s going to be absolutely world-beating technology.”

Unlike wind energy, where output varies according to the wind strength, the tidal power harnessed by SMECs is reliable and predictable.

The plan is to build a road bridge along the line of a long-abandoned railway that crossed the Solway on a viaduct between Bowness-on-Solway and Annan.

Mr Catterson said: “We would extend the existing embankment to narrow the gap to between 800m and 1km and put the devices in the gap approximately half a metre apart.”

For every five or six SMECs, there would be a turbine to generate electricity.

“We believe that we could have a capacity of 180 megawatts,” Mr Catterson said, “which is equivalent to that of Robin Rigg [the offshore windfarm near Maryport].”

That would provide enough electricity to power 120,000 homes.

He puts construction costs at £200m to £300m, which sounds prohibitive, but the scheme would have a lifespan of 120 years – far longer than a windfarm – to recoup the outlay.

Mr Catterson said: “It is designed to stand on its own without subsidy. There are people interested in investing.”

The tests on the Caldew were part-funded by the Carbon Trust and the Technology Strategy Board of the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

The prototype has been dismantled. The next step is a permanent SMEC installation. Negotiations are underway to secure a site on a river in west Cumbria.

If all goes well, Mr Catterson believes that a planning application for the Solway could come forward in 2017 with a view to having it operational by 2020.

He added: “I couldn’t be more excited about it. It’s my hope that VerdErg will base themselves in Cumbria and that is what we are working towards.”

Although its head office is at Woking, VerdErg has Cumbrian roots. It was spun out of Vickers – now BAE Systems – in Barrow in the 1970s.

The firm was sold and has since had several owners prior to a management buyout in 2005. Its focus now is on tidal technology.

Managing director Peter Roberts said: “Our strategy has been to develop the theory, move into the laboratory to prove that theory and then build a SMEC on a real river to prove its huge commercial potential. Throughout that time the interest and encouragement we’ve experienced from individuals and organisations in Cumbria has been a consistent source of inspiration.”

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