Scotland wants to become a global force in marine energy - a market that could be worth billions.
(Fortune Magazine) -- The Orkney Islands, where the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean violently meet, last gained fame in 1725 when the pirate ship Revenge was captured there.
Today a handful of startups and big companies including General Electric (GE, Fortune 500) are hoping to capture a different prize in Scotland's northernmost waters: marine energy. With waves that travel thousands of miles across the Atlantic before battering its coastline and tidal flows that exceed eight knots, the Scots are poised to become the world leader in this renewable energy source - a market potentially worth billions. By 2020, according to some estimates, Scotland could produce as much as 1,300 megawatts, enough to power a city the size of Seattle.
The Orkneys are already home to the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), the world's only test facility for tidal and wave energy. It's a $29.5 million floating laboratory that connects to Scotland's electricity grid via underwater cables. Among the firms active there is Pelamis, an Edinburgh-based startup backed by GE, which invested $2.6 million in 2006.
Now the utility Scottish Power plans to install what it claims will be the world's largest commercial wave "farm" - four giant metal sausages bobbing on the waves, each 460 feet long and capable of generating 750 kilowatts.
Wave energy is harnessed near the water's surface, while tidal energy is usually captured as the tides change on the sea floor. Both methods are far more predictable than wind or solar, and since water is denser than air, the same amount of power can be created with a far smaller turbine. That said, large-scale marine power is years away, and the technology is more than a decade behind more established renewable sources like wind and solar. (A few prototypes have already been wrecked by the tides' punishing flow.) "The sector is still in its infancy," says Colin McNaught, a renewable-energy expert advising the Scottish government.
Still, as oil prices cross $100 a barrel and global warming fears rise, look for an increasing array of energy experts to turn their attention to the briny deep. Or as James Ives, CEO of Irish energy startup Open Hydro, puts it, "This is an oil field that will never run out."