I’m extremely grateful for Orkneylad who pointed out this story to me, because I know many of the characters involved because a long while back when the Marine test centre in Orkney was still just an idea, I was lobbying various people involved in renewables trying to persuade them to carry out the kind of policies that had created such a successful wind industry in Denmark and had actually created so many jobs (unlike UK renewables which cost 3.7 jobs for each one created).
Unfortunately, I failed to convince them, or to be more precise, there were too many idiots who thought they new better and who totally misunderstood the role of the Danish Windmill test centre at Risø.
The problem was that guided by academics and renewable “experts” (whose only expertise was conning the government to give them our money), the “consensus” had developed that Risø was some research centre involved in highly sophisticated academic research. So, it was not surprising that the UK saw the way to a successful wave centre as another similarly “research” centre.
So, I was quite amazed when I actually did meet one of the original five engineers that had formed the wind test centre when it was still part of the Danish Nuclear research establishment. The first thing that struck me was his stubby hands. Whether they were ingrained with oil I can’t remember, but they were the kind of hands that every time served engineer eventually gets from repeated hands-on work with oil stained mechanics. The other thing which struck me, was unlike most Danes whose English is almost impecable, his was stumbling and heavily accented, not at all like the slick Danish salespeople who normally hung around the Danish wind exhibits, in fact thinking back, he hadn’t been on the stand – more kind of hidden out of the way! “Excuse me”, I asked him when I finally found him. “I’m very interested to know the kind of research you did at Risø?” “Research?” Was his reply. “Research?” … “Yes, research.” I said thinking he misunderstood the word “Investigations into windturbines and writing up the results in papers”.
The conversation was difficult. I was convinced from what I had been told in the UK, that Risø was a research centre, but I simply couldn’t find the research papers showing the research work they did at the early wind test centre. As I pressed, I began to realise that the problem was not that the engineer misunderstood the term “research” but he simply didn’t know of any research. “We tested wind turbines” was all he would say. Eventually after a lot of persistent inquiry, I eventually was given the answer to my question: “Oh … we did go down to the scrap yard and try out a few second hand lorry gearboxes”. And with that he was gone.
That conversation completely changed my view of the development of the Danish industry. Gone was the UK idea of some research led industry riding the wave of academic research. In came the realisation, that this test centre was actually a test centre (it sounds silly as its in the name) testing commercial windmills and trying to raise standards of commercial machines to make them more reliable for customers. Indeed, contrary to all that I had read in the UK about wind turbine design, the efficiency of the blades which seemed to so preoccupy UK academics was seen as a very unimportant problem compared to the gearbox. Yes! The key to windmill design and the key to the success of the Danish wind industry was the gearbox!
Gradually, it dawned on me, that the biggest problem of windmill design was not academic preoccupation of maximising the wind conversion efficiency of the machine, but simply keeping the machine turning. The blade tip did travel around a million miles a year, and the cost economics meant it had to do that with the minimum of servicing. Imagine if the average car was only serviced, not once every 5000, or 10,000 or 20,000 miles, but some 10x the total mileage that many cars do in a lifetime! Reliability with next to no maintenance: that was the difference between “success” and “failure”.
So, armed with that knowledge, it was clear to me what was needed for a successful marine industry.
We had to have a mechanism to focus securely and firmly on reliability. Reliability, Reliability! And if the UK’s past performance on wind energy was anything to go by, we were doomed to failure. The UK had been singularly unsuccessful with large wind. Every project funded a small number of very large wind turbines, which ran long enough to “prove they were a success” as the press releases proclaimed, but which ended in abysmal failure due to what the project teams span as: “some initial teething problem which can be easily ironed out when it goes into production”. Well they never did get into production, because these weren’t “initial teething problems” but show-stopper problems of reliability. Reliability that the academics who invariably ran the projects cared almost nothing about.
And where was the key reliability problem in marine? Looking through the projects a common cause of failure was that the marine devices were prone to break their moorings. It was the major cause of failure of projects, and whilst I couldn’t say it was the biggest long term reliability problem, it was clearly at least one of the key problems to tackle if there was going to be a commercial viable Scottish Marine industry.
So, what do we hear this month?
The Orkney Fisheries Association [OFA] has expressed renewed concern this week about dangers to fishermen, after a renewables’ marker buoy was ripped from it’s seabed mooring in last week’s storms.
The OFA secretary said: “OFA continue to have concerns that under-engineered devices & moorings failing in adverse sea conditions will pose a danger to fishermen, their gear & other users of the sea.
(source: the digital Glebe)
I hate to say I told them so, but I did! In Denmark, the successful windmill companies were agricultural machinery producers who had ruthlessly cost conscious customers who demanded low-cost reliability. Who was the equivalent for marine renewables? Fishermen!
If ever there was going to be a successful marine industry, the kind of people we should get involved were the fishermen, fishing boat builders and fishing peer builders who knew the sea and knew what would and wouldn’t work. But who did they get involved? Engineers from of all places Edinburgh which must have the calmest seas in the whole of Scotland. Why don’t people ever listen to the people who really know about the sea?
Mr Sinclair, who reported the loose buoy, said he did not feel that fishermen had been consulted with widely enough on the renewable sector plans.
“The fishermen feel the whole coast around Orkney is unsuitable for these types of machines.”