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Nicola Sturgeon unveils Atlantis Resources first MeyGen turbine at Nigg Energy Park

Monday 12th September 2016

Less than a decade ago, Timothy Cornelius, the head of the tidal-power venture Atlantis Resources, struggled to get investors and regulators to return his calls.  

Now, as he formally unveils the world’s largest tidal-stream project under construction, he can hardly fend them off. “The level of interest has been almost unmanageable,” Mr Cornelius complained happily of the requests for visits and meetings. The interest reflects the importance for the nascent tidal sector of Atlantis’s 398MW MeyGen project between the Scottish mainland and Orkney Islands. Success will demonstrate that tidal power has finally become a serious option.

“There is no doubt that the eyes of the world are on this project,” said Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, ahead of a visit to the Nigg Energy Park on Monday to see Atlantis unveil the first turbine to be installed under the waters of the Pentland Firth.

The hulking device, which resembles a bulked-up wind turbine, is one of four with combined output capacity of 6MW that make the up the £51m first stage of the MeyGen project.

If all goes well, they will be sending electricity within weeks to a new power conversion unit on the shore of the Pentland Firth at Ness of Quoys from where it can be sold to the grid.

“It is possible to consider the first sparks will come in late October,” Mr Cornelius said, adding that a second batch of 4 turbines will follow immediately.

The second stage will much cheaper and will require less public investment and the third should need none at all, according to Atlantis, which in April announced a deal with Equitix under which the infrastructure investor plans to put more than £100m into Scottish tidal power over the next two years.

“Psychologically, this is the unleashing,” Mr Cornelius said. “It was a great story before, now it is an infrastructure project.”

The project still faces formidable challenges. The very currents desirable for electricity generation complicate installation of the turbines, each of which requires more than 1,000 tonnes for their structure and ballast. “The Pentland Firth is a nightmare for most mariners,” said William Bremner, a skipper on the ferry that runs from nearby John o’Groats.

Most work on the undersea site is limited to short periods of slack in the current, particular during smaller “neap tides” twice a month.

“The kit has to be incredibly robust in order to survive a subsea tidal environment,” said Dave Rigg, Atlantis’s head of engineering services. “If you can imagine 40 metres of water flowing at nearly 15 miles per hour — that creates huge loads.”

Yet the appeal of tidal stream power is clear. There is less impact on the landscape or wildlife than offshore or onshore wind farms. And unlike wind, output is predictable years in advance.

Australia-headquartered Atlantis, which is listed on the London’s Stock Exchange’s Aim market, plans to spend nearly £500m in tidal power in Scotland over the next two years.

Mr Cornelius said the Scottish and UK governments are right to see tidal stream as a major opportunity. Three of MeyGen’s first batch of turbines are supplied by Germany’s Andritz Hydro Hammerfest and a fourth is being built for Atlantis by Lockheed Martin of the US.

But more than 40 per cent of capital expenditure for the first phase is within the UK and this will rise in the second phase to 60 per cent. Atlantis hopes to be able to firm up plans for at least 50 turbines next year, enough to turn Nigg into a major centre for fabricating, assembling and testing.

“Britain lost wind turbine manufacturing [and] Britain lost nuclear manufacturing, but it can own tidal,” Mr Cornelius said.