Scottish Tides Could Power Computer Farm

a-04For the past 16 years a rocky alcove on the shores of Stroma, one of the Orkney islands off the north coast of Scotland, has been the final resting place of the Bettina Danica, a 70-metre cargo vessel that ran aground in February 1993. All six crew were saved, but tugboats were unable to pull her back out to sea. After several attempts, they gave up.

Today all that is left is a rusting, crumpled hull, visible from passing ferries. It is not the only ship to meet such a fate. The remains of more than 60 vessels litter the rocks and seabed around this island, victims of the treacherous waters of the Pentland Firth. This stretch of sea between the tip of Scotland and the Orkney islands has some of the strongest tides in the world, created as surges from the Atlantic on one side and the North Sea on the other slosh through the strait that is only a few miles wide.

Yet shipwrecks aren’t all that lie beneath the roiling grey waters. Scottish first minister Alex Salmond has said the firth has the potential to turn Scotland into the Saudi Arabia of tidal energy, and the Crown Estates has begun an auction of parcels of seabed for tidal power developments. More than 40 companies are bidding.

Atlantis Resources, a small tidal turbine developer, is one of them. The company, led by Tim Cornelius, an Australian and former pilot of manned submersibles, has come up with a novel £400m project to build one of the world’s biggest tidal power plant there. Unlike other projects whose output would be pumped into the National Grid, Cornelius’s plan is to build a giant data centre onshore that would take all its power.

It sounds an off-the-wall idea, but one that he said tackles the biggest obstacle to development of Pentland Firth: its remoteness. Transporting power to areas of high demand, such as Edinburgh, would be costly. Even if it were possible, there is a nine-year waiting list for National Grid to connect a new project to the grid in Scotland – what Cornelius calls the GBQ, or Great Britain Queue.

To get round that he decided to bring demand to this remote corner of Scotland. “The Pentland Firth presented the perfect conundrum. It is far and away the most enticing tidal resource in the world but there is no way of connecting to the grid or exporting the power down to where the load was. We just couldn’t accept that there was no way to get this done,” he said.

After looking at several potential sources of demand, such as large industrial plants, he decided on a data centre because it is unobtrusive and power-hungry. Essentially large warehouses where companies can rent space to store servers, data centres consume huge quantities of energy – most of it goes to the equipment needed to keep the room cool. Low temperatures and strong winds in the area mean that less cooling equipment would be needed. Atlantis hopes to build about a kilometre inland at a greenfield site just below the Castle of Mey in Caithness.

It’s an ambitious project. The ultimate goal is to install 150MW of turbines at a cost of about £400m after a first trial phase of 30MW is built. This scaled-up version would include 150 turbines, at 1MW each, an offshore transformer platform and a single cable that would link to the data centre. A data centre that could consume 150MW, enough to power a small city, would put it among the largest in Europe.

Another power source would also be required. Cornelius said that, based on tidal patterns, the farm would produce about 70% of the centre’s energy needs. A back-up source that could be turned on when tides aren’t flowing would have to be built. Atlantis is discussing with farmers having a greenhouse warmed by the excess heat given off by the acres of computers at the site.

Several unknowns hang over the project. Nobody has ever tried to build an underwater industrial complex in the kind of conditions presented by the firth, where tides can reach up to 18mph or 30kph., and tidal technology is a long way from being proved. Angus McCrone of New Energy Finance said it was a good five years behind renewable technologies like wind and solar. “It is unclear how much tidal power farms will cost to build or operate. There are still too many competing tidal technologies today. We need a good decade of projects up and operating before it becomes clear which are the winners and how much they will cost,” he said.

The Scottish government is well aware of this. To attract developers, it passed a new subsidy scheme that from April 1 tripled the per-megawatt payout for tidal energy. For its part, the Crown Estate wants up to 700MW of tidal power – enough to power about 700,000 homes – to be built as an initial trial. If it works, the Crown will sell much greater areas of seabed. It estimates that up to 10GW of power, nearly a quarter of average UK power consumption, could be generated there.

Early signs are good. Norwegian renewables giant Statkraft recently led a $14m (£9.6m) cash injection into Atlantis and Morgan Stanley, an early backer, also pitched in. It is now Atlantis’s biggest shareholder with 49%.

Whether Cornelius can bring the vision to fruition is, for the moment, out of his hands. “It’s all about waiting for the Crown Estates. To get to the promised land, we need to get the okay from them first,” he said.


Source: By Danny Fortson, The Sunday Times 12-Apr-09 
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