Sustainable Marine Energy

PLAT-O operates at a depth clear of vessel traffic
PLAT-O operates at a depth clear of vessel traffic
PLAT-O's position in the water column is controlled by a multi bridle system
PLAT-O's position in the water column is controlled by a multi bridle system
SME engineers make some final tweaks to the test tidal generator
SME engineers make some final tweaks to the test tidal generator
Industry Database

Last November, Isle of Wight, UK-based company Sustainable Marine Energy (SME) successfully completed the second of four tests on its innovative PLAT-O tidal turbine platform, as reported in December’s 'Maritime Journal'. So, how exactly does the technology work? And what are the prospects for future commercialisation?

The PLAT-O system, short for 'Platform for Ocean Technology,' is an integrated subsea tidal energy platform for hosting third party tidal energy turbines. The platform is taut-moored to the seabed using a novel anchoring solution developed by a team of in-house engineers, which enables the system to use buoyancy to resist the thrust and drag forces induced by the tidal energy converters, as well as by the structure itself.

According to Jason Hayman, Managing Director at SME, PLAT-O addresses the sectors' biggest challenges by 'dramatically reducing installation and maintenance costs and enabling deployment in deeper water, where over two thirds of the UK tidal resource is located.' The company is currently testing a prototype 100kW PLAT-O system off the Isle of Wight using two 50kW SCHOTTEL turbines.

"PLAT-O has the potential to unlock value across the tidal energy supply chain and will provide commercially viable community-scale energy in the near-term," he says.

"The system is robust yet compliant, reducing the loads imposed on tidal turbine drive trains. It can be anchored in any type of seabed and is tolerant of uneven terrain. It is also suitable for small-scale and utility-scale projects, compatible with most leading turbine developers' technology and adaptable for a wide range of tidal turbine configurations," he adds.

The testing and development process began when a model of the 100kW PLAT-O was validated by tank testing at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne's combined wind, wave and current tank during 2011, followed by hydrodynamic modelling at Cranfield University in 2012. Further tank testing took place in Ifremer's large flume tank in Boulogne sur Mer, alongside drag tests on platform components performed in a towing tank on the Cranfield campus. This was followed by design and construction of the first 100kW full-scale prototype, known as PLAT-O#1, which is currently being tested in a four-phase process.  

"The objective of the testing is to de-risk the project by identifying and solving issues in stages.  By testing in this way team capabilities and stakeholder confidence is built up gradually over time.  It is important to understand that this approach to testing is achievable because of the low-cost of marine operations and logistics that PLAT-O has been designed for," says Hayman.

The first round of testing took place at Venture Quays in the Isle of Wight, which was preceded by a 'trim and incline' test to enable accurate calculation of the amount and location of solid ballast required to achieve neutral buoyancy and ascertain the centre of gravity.  PLAT-O #1 was then towed to a test site off Yarmouth Harbour for a 'platform test', where it was submerged to 12m and brought back to the surface to prove that the system could be deployed and recovered from the tidal stream.

In a third 'power test', planned for early next year, the turbines will be fully operational but not grid connected and the PLAT-O will be connected to a barge for monitoring purposes. Any excess power generated during this stage will be dispersed through a load bank and the turbine, power and control systems will be tested with the support of Schottel engineers. A final 'autonomous operation' test is then scheduled for the second quarter of 2015 at the site in Yarmouth Harbour.

"During this test all systems will be fitted and active. PLAT-O#1 will be connected to a surface marker buoy ,which will transmit data that will be monitored from the office in East Cowes," says Hayman.

Once the entire four-stage test programme is complete, Hayman says that PLAT-O#1 will be disassembled and transported to another site for further testing 'in a more active tidal environment.' The company has also been awarded a £250,000 Low Carbon Innovation Fund (LCIF) grant to support the ongoing testing programme and contribute to design work currently being undertaken for PLAT-O#2, which Hayman reveals will be a 200kW platform.

"The lessons learnt to date have been carefully recorded and are being used to inform decisions in the design process," he adds.

Hayman believes that the best way to create new technology is to 'start small and grow through the experience of doing' and he is confident that the 200kW PLAT-O#2 will be commercially viable, providing a return to 'whoever owns one.'

"This will mean that SME can grow and PLAT-O can develop through the selling of PLAT-O systems rather than continuously returning to investors for more funds. Our goal is to demonstrate that PLAT-O is commercially viable and then to scale-up through arrays and through hosting larger turbines," he says.

The long-term plan is to grow the company by selling PLAT-O systems to a customer base 'that has already invested in wind, solar, hydro and other renewables,' including private investors, investment funds, communities, and local businesses.

"We are already in dialogue around two sites and hope to be making some announcements on this early in 2015. SME will also position itself as the platform of choice for tidal turbine OEMs, who are concentrating on the effectiveness of their turbines, rather than the complexity of creating effective deployment platforms," says Hayman.

"Expansion is aimed not just in the UK, as SME's experience in its home country will enable it to expand overseas and supply PLAT-O systems to site developers around the world. PLAT-O systems can also be used for other sub-sea marine activities.  There has been interest from power companies about its ability to operate as a sub-sea electricity sub-station," he adds.

By Andrew Williams

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