Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Archive
29 June 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 9:21am

From the NS archive: Will Britain miss out on wave power?

9 June 1978: The oil, coal and nuclear lobbies and the caution of the Civil Service are winning.

By David Ross

Journalist and green energy advocate David Ross writes in 1978 with frustrated optimism on Britain’s future of wave power energy. In a country where “solar energy… is never going to match the power of the sea”, we have ignored our unique location and opportunity to transform our position with “the roughest, richest waves in the world”, he writes. Ross is far from the first to recognise the potential power of the waters. Since the late 18th century, we have seen how the enormous mass of a ship responds to the slightest wave motion and noted that if “one imagines a vessel to be suspended from the end of a lever, one has conceived the idea of the most powerful machine which has ever existed”. Yet, as Ross concludes, it is the British caution against cost and reluctance to change that keeps us reliant on coal and oil, and prevents us from being on the “verge of a revolution as significant as the discovery of steam power”.


This week the government produced its White Paper on alternative sources of energy which set out a programme worth £6m, subject to review next spring. This means there is little chance of an increase in the pace of research and development. The oil, coal and nuclear lobbies, and the caution of the civil service are winning. The prevailing view is that if we went ahead now with development of wave energy (for which £2.9m has been allotted) we should be certain to waste money in a way that would be justified only under wartime conditions.

However, Sir Christopher Cockerell, now the leading experimenter in wave energy, insists that any such development is bound to “waste” money if it is done well. “The designer have got to have a chance to make mistakes. We know we can produce electricity.” He speaks as the owner of a 1:10 scale model power station which is floating in the Solent producing continuous electricity. Sir Christopher, who invented the hovercraft, forecast it would do just that and he was right.

For Britain certainly, and for many other countries, waves present the most promising form of alternative energy. The government and most of the scientists and engineers engaged in seeking ways to produce energy are agreed on that much. Solar energy in this climate is never going to match the power of the sea. Aero-generators would be eyesores on our hilltops and cliffs; or we could build them at sea, as is now being suggested, but there seems little sense in doing so when the waves are a concentrated form of wind power. A tidal barrage in the Severn would be a once-off operation, damaging to the scenery and the salmon fishing, expensive to build and would make only a small addition to the energy supplies. Geothermal energy might make some contribution. But it is the waves, which surround us, and which include (off the Outer Hebrides) the roughest, richest waves in the world, which could transform our position.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

This claim rests not on the optimism of one inventor but on the research of the man who will have to answer the awkward questions if the lights go out and the conveyor belts stop bringing up coal from the mines. Ian Glendenning is “Leader of Long Term Studies Projects” at the Marchwood Laboratory of the Central Electricity Generating Board. A professional sceptic, he nonetheless suspects that we may be on the verge of a revolution as significant as the discovery of steam power. The 6,000-word survey he presented to the Oceanology International conference at Brighton was the most up to date and comprehensive review of the data available – and it caused quite a sensation. His conclusion was that the likely wave power sites off the coast of the UK contain “a ‘potential’ of 120 GW, five times the average demand on the CEGB system.”

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

Of course, the “potential” energy will not all be captured. There will be losses in generation and transmission. The energy will not be “firm” – you cannot just press a button as you can with nuclear power. Yet many experts believe that wave energy can be made firm by extending pumped storage underground. There is never a time when all the seas are calm at the same instant, so by spreading the devices one can be fairly sure of a constant supply. Anyway no one is proposing that we close all our other sources of energy.

The government’s secretary of the Wave Energy Steering Committee, Mr Clive Grove-Palmer, puts it this way: “Divide your 120 GW by two for efficiency and by another two for transmission. Say your average energy is 50 kilowatts a metre, then from 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) of devices, we would get only 12 KW.” Even by this rightly cautious estimate, we could replace nearly half our normal consumption of electricity without using up fossil fuels. It refutes the extraordinary pessimism of Mr Alex Eadie, junior energy minister, who has said that by the year 2000 all renewable sources energy might produce about 3 per cent of the output of the national grid. And there are experts who will argue that we would lose not 50 per cent but only 10 per cent at each stage, from generation and transmission.

Two hundred years ago, we moved from the water wheel to steam power and found that we could produce more energy by boiling water than by letting it drive a mill direct. In the process, we invented pollution. Today, we have the technology to return to the direct use of water.

The story of wave energy began in 1799 when two brothers named Girard filed a patent in Paris for the first known wave energy device: “The motion and successive inequality of waves which, after having been elevated like mountains fall away in the following instant, take into their motion all bodies which float on them. The enormous mass of a ship of the line, which no other known force is capable of lifting, responds to the slightest wave motions. If for a moment one imagines this vessel to be suspended from the end of a lever, one has conceived the idea of the most powerful machine which has ever existed…”

The translation is by Alan Hidden, an engineer at Queen’s University, Belfast, who has himself contributed an air turbine which will probably be a major contribution to wave energy.

Since then, some 300 patents for wave energy have been filed in London alone. The modern end of the story began in the 1960s when AN Walton Bott, who had worked on hydroelectric schemes in Scotland, devised a plan for capturing a reservoir of water behind the coral reefs fringing Mauritius, where he had been sent by the Crown Agents. The scheme was abandoned in 1966. The price of oil was actually falling and there was no need for alternatives.

The next development came the day that Stephen Salter, a physicist at Edinburgh University, got flu. His wife turned on him and said: “Stop lying there looking sorry for yourself. Why don’t you solve the energy crisis?” It was the depressing winter of 1973 and the Arab-lsraeli war had brought the energy crisis to a head. Mrs Salter, a psychologist, gave him a precise decisive objective: something which would provide the vast amount of energy needed, would be clean and safe, would work in winter in Scotland and would last forever. He came up with his design for a bobbing duck. Mr Gordon Goodwin, principal scientific officer at the Department of Energy, was the first civil servant to appreciate that Salter had discovered something important and he worked on the back stairs and in the anonymous corridors to get him public money – a grant of £1.01m for a two-year feasibility study, later increased to £2.5m.

The official attitude is still cautious. Dr Freddie Clarke, research director for energy at Harwell is the key figure in the government’s thinking about our future energy programme. Alternative sources are “likely to make only a minor contribution” this century, he said in a recent speech, although there could be “a take-off in their use during the first decades (plural) of the next century”. The structures involved, he said, would be the size of aircraft hangars. One element in any of the wave energy devices could contain the hall in which he was speaking – Westminster Hall.

I have been told about buildings as high as tower blocks and as long as giant oil tankers, pounded by waves strong enough to pick up a cathedral and throw it through a torque of 30 metre diameter. Such arguments of scale are bound to daunt the layman: “Imagine trying to build a wall 1,200 feet above sea level containing 100,000 cubic metres of concrete. Just for a start, old boy, how do you get the concrete up there? It would have to contain 10 million cubic metres of water and to get the water up to that height would require pumps weighing about 650 tonnes inside a cavern dug out of the earth, 270 feet long and 100 feet high, big enough to take a seven storey building…” Yet in fact that is a description of the Cruachan pumped storage development in Scotland, which has been functioning for 13 years with a 400 MW capacity.

The Japanese are pressing ahead with wave energy in the pragmatic manner that was once regarded as the British style. A former naval officer, Commander Masuda, has invented a device called the Oscillating Water Column – an upturned canister with an air bubble in the top and a hole above it. As the waves rise and fall inside the canister, the air is sucked in and pushed out and it drives an air turbine. They tried it out on a small scale to light up navigation buoys and lighthouses and there are now 300 of them functioning. Trinity House has just bought three of them and a British firm, AGA Navigation Aids, is to produce them here under licence. They need no fuel and are serviced only when the light need replacing. Now the Japanese have moved on to bigger things. They are about to launch a 500-ton ship, the Kaimei, which is 80 metres long. They have cut 22 holes in the bottom to make air chambers, and turbine and dynamos will it on the deck producing electricity – between 1,000 and 2,000 kilowatts compared with our best effort so far of one kilowatt in the Solent.

British scientists and engineers would probably be critical of the Japanese device, which appears to lack efficiency. Our own experts are continually testing models on computers and improving designs and holding committee meetings. They apparently fail to grasp that wave energy can make a major contribution even if the first devices are, in engineering terms, inefficient. There is no need to standardise design. Waves used inefficiently cannot be wasted like coal or oil.

Why is Britain going slow? Tony Benn is not usually regarded as a minister dedicated to caution. His hero is Franklin Delano Roosevelt who embarked on a comparable scheme to help pull America out of slump: the Tennessee Valley Authority, which built dams to produce cheap hydro-electric power. It regenerated parts of the South and provided tens of thousands of jobs. Today, wave energy could do the same in just the area where work is most needed – the Clyde, Belfast and the north-east where shipyards are dying for lack of orders and skills are available to build the huge seaborne monsters. One word whispered in explanation is Concorde. There is a fear that we could become involved in an expensive project which, once it had captured the public imagination, would be unstoppable. There are rival interests of course. Dr Freddie Clarke has great admiration for the work of the oil companies and they have no enthusiasm for anything which might make their presence less desirable. Mr Alex Eadie, Mr Benn’s number two, is a former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s miner’s group. The National Coal Board, with the support of the NUM, is busily digging up the Vale of York around Selby and is contemplating the Vale of Belvoir. It has plans for the Cotswolds and there are rumours that the city of Oxford is sitting on a pillar of coal. The nuclear lobby is powerful in the department and at Harwell, everyone will assure you that the dangers of nuclear energy are minimal. (The wave Energy Steering Committee is based there and you reach its offices through corridors lined with compartments labelled “DANGER RADIATION”.)

None of these factors should be exaggerated. We are talking about honourable people, genuinely worried about committing enormous sums to an experimental project. But meanwhile the Japanese are going ahead and are already selling their patents and devices abroad, where there is a limitless export market. They are even selling us their navigation buoys. They need energy desperately and they want foreign markets, too. We could also use the export prospects, with patents and products, but while we have coal and oil complacency will continue to reign.

There are four main wave energy devices being developed in Britain at the present time. 

  • Sir Christopher Cockerell has invented a trio of articulated rafts which follow the contour of the waves. As the front raft bobs up and down freely, and the second moves at a different phase, while the third stays relatively stable, the hinges drive hydraulic jacks: pistons inside cylinders which pump out hydraulic fluid and drive a motor. The motor turns a generator and electricity flows.  
  • Stephen Salter, a physicist at Edinburgh University, has a line of bobbing vanes, shaped like cones and held alongside one another by a spine. They are known as Salter’s ducks because they nod up and down. The motion of the ducks drives rotary pumps which, in their turn, power a generator.
  • The National Engineering laboratory at East Kilbride, near Glasgow, is developing the Oscillating Water Column – an upturned canister with an air bubble up above the water line and a hole in the top. As the waves rise and fall, air is sucked in through the hole and pushed out again. The motion drives an air turbine which is linked to a generator.
  • The Hydraulics Research Station at Wallingford, Oxfordshire, has invented a power station which stands on the seabed, unlike the other devices which float, it looks like a high-rise block of flats, with lines of non-return valves facing the waves, like parallel rows of letter boxes. The water is forced into the monster and trapped in a high-level reservoir. The only exit is through a turbine into a low-level reservoir, rather like the system of a canal lock. As the water flows down, it drives a turbine and, once more, produces electricity. 
  • There are also plans being developed by Vickers Offshore, Lancaster University, Imperial College and many other centres.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)