The untimely death of Salter's Duck


Traditional energy generators have generally not assisted the necessary moves towards renewable technology. While hydro and biomass are long-established, if under-used, parts of the power hierarchy, wind, solar and wave power must still battle to establish themselves. And they must do so against heavy odds, such as scant funding and even sabotage. The case of Salter's Duck is illuminating.

The Duck is a 300-tonne floating canister designed to drive a generator from the motion of bobbing up and down on waves like a duck. It was developed in the late '70s by a team headed by Professor Stephen Salter at Edinburgh University. This was one of several research groups set up after a 1976 judgment by the Department of Energy that wave power was the most promising renewable energy source.

In 1982, a consultant was able to report that the duck could be expected, with further development, to produce electricity at a cost of around 5.5 pence (about 12 cents) per kilowatt-hour, a price competitive with nuclear power (the most expensive commercial generation process in use in Britain). Clive Grove-Palmer, a respected department engineer seconded to work on the duck project, estimated that the cost could be got down around 3 pence per kilowatt-hour (about 7 cents).

Soon after this, the department's research and development advisory council (ACORD) met, excluding Grove-Palmer, and accepted a secret report, prepared by a unit based at British Atomic Energy Authority headquarters, claiming that wind power had more immediate commercial possibilities than wave power, and research funds should be shifted to it. The department, which was packed with nuclear supporters, had instructed ACORD to reduce its renewables research budget from £14 million £11 million. At the time, the department was spending around £200 million on nuclear research.

Grove-Palmer took early retirement as a result of the decision. "I resigned ... because they asked me to write the obituary of wave power. There was no way I could do that ... We were just ready to do the final year of development and then go to sea."

It was eight months before wave power researchers were allowed to see the report on which ACORD based its decision to junk their work. Then, in January 1983, a research unit based at the Atomic Energy Authority came out with another report concealing the good figures for the Duck by averaging them in with figures for all wave power projects. This gave a non-commercial figure of 8-12 pence per kilowatt-hour.

Apparently still not satisfied that they had killed the Duck, opponents of the project then produced figures overestimating capital costs by a factor of 10, massively underestimating the reliability of undersea cables, and claiming that in mass production each Duck would cost about the same as one prototype. After a long campaign to save the project, Professor Salter's team was forced to disperse in early 1987. "We must not waste another 15 years and dissipate the high motivation of another generation of young engineers", wrote Salter in a memorandum to the House of Lords committee on renewable energy. "We must stop using grossly different assessment methods in a rat race between technologies at widely differing stages of their development. We must find a way of reporting accurate results to decision makers and have decision makers with enough technical knowledge to spot data massage if it occurs. I believe that this will be possible only if the control of renewable energy projects is completely removed from nuclear influences."