Sometimes, when Leithers talk about the docks, they get all misty eyed and nostalgic for a not-so-far off halcyon time when everyone worked in real jobs on the docks, loading and trading and making and building stuff and travelling all over the world.
And looking into the future, there’s also a lot of speculation around what will happen next on the docks – with folk still waiting to see if Gamesa will actually sign up to build a huge marine wind turbine factory that will employ hundreds more folk on the docks who will be making stuff once again.
But right now, it’s perhaps easy for people to forget that in that huge blue shed inside the security perimeter of the docks there are about 50 people working – some around the clock – on another bit of world leading, award winning, marine technology.
No they’re not building boats – and they’re not building wind turbines – they’re building these giant red wave energy devices…
These devices, designed and built by a firm called Pelamis, are big, and as this cutaway above shows, they’ve got some serious kit inside them too.
Each wave energy device is made up of a series of these floating sections, and as the waves pass the machine the ‘sea snake’ flexes. By using some very clever hydraulics, that flexing motion is converted into a continuous electricity output.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dZHUMEwA0Q?list=PLBBDDAE56A3AB184B&w=560&h=315]
Each sea snake can produce a maximum of about 750Kw but averaged over time this means each one produces enough electricity for about 500 houses – depending on where you put it.
At the moment the firm has only two development machines in the water – in Orkney – but there are big plans for the years ahead, with plans in the pipeline for a series of larger sites in the powerful seas around Orkney, Shetland, The Hebrides and the north of Scotland.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytyjaXlcwdM?list=PL557A629750E415D1&w=560&h=315]
Over the festive period Deborah Smith, who works as the Marketing Coordinator for the company, invited Greener Leith to visit the factory. There she explained the scale of the firm and it’s connection with Leith:
“The company was founded in 1988, as a result of a Phd from Edinburgh University. Richard Yemm is our founder and it was his Phd that explored the principles of the device and after he finished he decided to do something practical about it. And so today he’s the Commercial Director and in a way it will always be his baby really.
“Now there’s between 45 and 50 people employed here in Leith. This is where we manufacture and it’s also our design headquarters so when we’re manufacturing there are a few more people on site typically, because we do a lot of the assembly work ourselves.
“At the moment we have a team of about eight people up on Orkney – an operations and maintenance team – and amongst them there is a mixture of quite a few locals and people who have moved up there especially.
“In fact I think we’re the second biggest employer on Hoy,” she adds, laughing.
“We’ve got two demonstrator machines in Orkney. There’s the European Marine Energy Centre there which is a sort of test centre for full scale marine devices – so there’s both wave and tidal power there.
“We have two different machines, which are for two different utility customers, E.On and Scottish Power Renewables – each of them actually bought a Pelamis machine for testing – which is quite exciting for us, because we were the first company in the sector to have done that.
“We’ve got two different utilities, who are working together in tandem, and they’re doing this because they’ve each got 50MW wave farms which are under development at the moment, both off the coast of Orkney.”
The purpose of the two second generation P2 machines that are in the water now is to test the design and fine tune it so that the machines operate as efficiently as possible before the firm scales up to it’s first two commercial scale wave farms, with more projects planned as well.
You might be surprised to learn that the machines are monitored 24 hours a day from a control room in Leith. There engineers are busy trying to work out the best way to tweak the control systems inside the devices so that they generate the most power under different weather conditions.
Deborah said: “At the moment the P2’s generate up to 750KW, but there’s a potential for future production machines to scale up to 1MW. So we’d be looking at 10 machines for a 10MW wave farm.”
“Orkney has a good wave resource, but there are also a few other areas around Scotland which are potentially even better. As well as the two Orkney projects, we’ve got a project off the west coast of the Western Isles and one in Shetland as well.
“The project in Shetland is a joint project with Vatenfall, the Swedish Utility firm.
“Initially we’re working on smaller first targets, as the E.on and Scottish Power projects are still in development, so we’re looking at a few years yet before they’re implemented fully – it’s the same with all our projects as well.”
“The testing that we’re doing with the E.On and the Scottish Power machines is separate really to the bigger projects, but the testing itself is going very well.”
The main goal of the firm is to scale up production and refine their designs so that the Pelamis wave power machines become cost competitive with marine wind power.
And whilst the long term vision for the firm seems clear, we were keen to find out whether there would be any room left on the docks for Pelamis if Gamesa and their huge wind turbine factory turn up,
Deborah said: “At the moment our current plan is to stay in Leith, for a while at least. There’s no plans to move elsewhere. We will be building another machine here at some point next year, and that’s going to go up to Orkney, for testing in 2014.
“So the next machine will certainly be built in Leith, and it’s likely that the machines for the first commercial scale wave farms will be built here – if not 100% – at least the power take off units which is the bit that goes inside the power module – the bit that essentially generates the electricity.
And she added that the firm is actually really keen to stay in Leith, with staff already working on plans to build 10 machines a year from the Port:
“At the moment we can build one machine here, and there are potential plans for us to build 10 machines over the course of year from this facility. This is obviously something we’re looking at in quite a lot of detail at them moment, because we’ve got projects that are hoping to begin construction from 2015/2016 and that’s actually not that far away.
“So there’s a lot of planning going on right now looking at how we can mass produce Pelamis machines from Leith, and obviously we’re a local company with good ties here in terms of suppliers, and wider business relationships. We would love to stay in Leith and so it’s definitely possible.”
“We’ve got the systems in place so we can just build part of them here, and part of them somewhere else, and actually we’ve still got a bit of room to grow here from a manufacturing point of view. When we’re only building one machine at a time, there’s certainly unused space in the shed.”
She also suggested that whilst it might be hard for Pelamis and Gamesa to work together on munfacturing they may get some benefit from any improved port facilities that are built in Leith if Gamesa do sign on the dotted line with Forth Ports.
“Gamesa are probably looking for their own space – so I don’t know how much interaction there would be in terms of sharing manufacturing space. But in terms of looking at the port facilities here, the more renewables firms that are here the chances are the better they will get, so we might well get a benefit from that.”
You can find out more about Pelamis and how their machines work by visiting their website at www.pelamis.com