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Business spotlight: pushing for tidal power

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 13 Aug 2020

It is convenient to tag green ideas onto economic recovery following a global pandemic. But when it comes to supporting the technologies that deliver green, what is really going on? ICAEW Scotland member Chris Milne explains.

It’s all in the numbers. The price of energy versus the total cost of production is roughly what governments, businesses and others consider when building their energy policies. It all boils down to return on investment, as with most projects and assets.

However, with tidal power, we are talking about making a step-change in predictable, low carbon, renewable energy production. Inevitably, there will be higher capital costs and lower output until these new technologies reach maturity; however that is defined.

“This is why previous UK energy policies such as Renewable Obligation Certificates or Contracts for Difference (CfD) (auctions with de minimis limits), have recognised that higher power prices must be offered to support projects that use earlier stage technologies. It helps facilitate the technology’s journey ‘down the cost curve’,” says Chris Milne, CFO of Orbital Marine Power.

He adds that offshore wind, through this kind of support, has already achieved lower costs and, therefore, lower prices for the consumer. Now, he says, it is time for the government to act and support tidal energy in the same way.

And let’s face it; it is not just about the march towards a net-zero carbon economy. As a nation, we could also be on the cusp of being world-class suppliers and exporters of cutting-edge tidal technology, and creating thousands of manufacturing, operations and service sector jobs. If only we get this right.

Milne is an ICAEW member who trained with KPMG, where he remained for a total of seven years, including time in the London M&A private equity team. It opened his eyes to what success looks like from an owner/manager point of view. It was not always purely financial; there were broader societal considerations too.

Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) then beckoned, and he returned home to Scotland. “I found the energy space compelling and interesting. It is a must-have,” says Milne. For seven years, he worked on M&A from infrastructure, power generation and upstream gas through to energy venture capital – but all the way through he could see there was the potential to do the right thing.

“There’s no better learning experience than actually doing something, being in the trenches, and feeling the pressure to deliver – and there was no shortage of experience to be gained at SSE,” he says. But the private equity experience before this role prompted him to look for something more organic; that he could grow and be more than a cog in a large corporate wheel. So, he briefly returned to hydrocarbon focussed private equity, before joining Orbital Marine Power.

“Oil and gas were starting to look fragile,” he says, but he told himself he was helping to create more jobs and build bigger businesses, so he was contributing positively to the UK economy. “I was then challenged by a friend about the impact of what I was doing on the environment,” he says. That is when he had his “aha” moment.

“Oil and gas are depleting resources with what we now understand to be significant and negative long-term environmental impacts and I started to feel uncomfortable,” he says. “I understood the power generation landscape. I was an informed observer. I had been dismissive of marine energy up to this point because I thought it was just too expensive.” This pivotal conversation prompted Milne to look at the energy sector with fresh eyes.

When we look back over the last 20 years, we can see that wind and solar power have contributed hugely to the shift towards renewables. Marine energy had to be next. The trouble is, points out Milne, most contenders in this space were trying to build a wind farm on the seabed without a real understanding of the impact of these construction and maintenance costs on project economics. This made marine projects unviable, difficult or impossible to fund and therefore not likely to happen.

When he saw the technology developed by Orbital Marine Power, his misgivings fell away. “The Orbital technology is much more like a boat,” he explains. “It floats on the surface of the ocean, and the thrust of the tidal forces on the blades creates kinetic energy which is transformed into electrical energy and exported off to shore. That’s basically a ship or a boat, but held stationary so effectively operating in reverse in terms of the energy conversion. People have been maintaining maritime vessels and other metal infrastructure on the sea for years, and our company technology is no different.”

Having joined Orbital Marine Power, part of his job became encouraging others to have the same epiphany as him. This took much persuasion at times, especially on the fundraising front.

“My job is to help create and communicate that investable proposition – to build what I was looking for in my prior roles. It has not always been easy,” he says. “Four weeks after I joined the company, the UK government withdrew its market support for tidal power, effectively paralysing the industry’s main global, and Orbital’s own domestic, market.” Now, Milne is pushing hard for that support to come back.

Despite the difficulties, Milne and the Orbital team have raised £22.5m in the last 24 months, including £7m on Abundance, the ethical investment peer-to-peer lending platform. “Our approach to financing had to be as creative and innovative as our technology,” he says, especially since there is no domestic market for the company’s product at this time. While COVID has not helped, Milne is pleased that the company’s flagship Orbital O2 project remains on budget and on course for a 2021 installation at the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in the Orkney Islands. But more needs to be done to successfully refinance the project and raise new funds, from both institutional and highly engaged public investors, for the next low carbon tidal projects.

Hence Milne’s clarion call to the government. Orbital Marine Power is building the most powerful tidal turbine in the world. It will be far in advance, in terms of technology, of anything that has been created so far. Having missed the boat with wind power, Milne is adamant that the UK should be a world leader in marine energy.

A new industry like this will support the UK’s manufacturing sector as well as long-term overhaul and maintenance jobs in the coastal regions around projects, generate huge export opportunities and make the UK a world leader. Importantly, the UK would be a real player in the global green recovery.

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