Offshore renewable energy to isolated coastal communities | G7 series

Frontier Technical offshort wind turbine

Renewable energy innovator finds UK and overseas partners and prepares to launch Canadian subsidiary following international support from Innovate UK EDGE.

A Devon-based micro-SME is developing near-offshore wind technology that will generate renewable energy for small islands and coastal communities with a focus on developing countries.

Frontier Technical’s configurable floating energy platforms will be manufactured in the UK and, in partnership with UK Aid, transported in shipping containers to South Asian developing countries.

Target markets for the project include the Philippines, which has over 900 islands and a national objective to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.  

“Our aim is to bring affordable offshore renewable energy to coastal communities that have no realistic chance of ever being connected to a utility grid,” says Trevor Hardcastle, Managing Director, Frontier Technical.

“By introducing an alternative means of energy generation, we can replace indoor wood-fuelled cooking, which have strong links to respiratory diseases, and improve social mobility by ensuring that children have light to study by in the evenings.”

The cost of shipping the turbines to their destination is low as many of the shipping containers travelling from Europe to Asia are empty. According to China Railway, 29% of its containers travelling from Europe back to China were empty in 2018.

“Often, attempts to bring renewable energy to remote communities have resulted in unintended consequences,” continues Trevor. “The tendency has been to install derivatives of technically complex renewable systems that require specialised technical support and when things break, communities have no way of fixing them, and can be left in a worse position than they were before.”

In view of the remote locations and the likely absence of local specialist support, Frontier Technical’s modular floating energy platforms are designed to be operated and maintained by people with no specialist training or qualifications. Product design is informed through specific social science research in Bangladesh and India.

Energy transfer from the point of generation to the point of use is also a key issue for Frontier Technical, and where its innovation really comes into its own. Seabed cable failures account for the greatest proportion of offshore wind generation downtime and repairs can be both costly and lengthy.

The company’s solution is to eliminate its reliance on cables and instead create a jet-propelled ‘Energy Transfer Shuttle’. The autonomously controlled shuttle travels underwater between the turbine, where it charges its large batteries, and an onshore docking station. The docking station retrieves electricity from the onboard batteries and uses it to charge small transportable energy packs which can be carried by truck, car or bicycle to their point of use.

“We don’t have the expertise to develop an autonomously controlled module in-house and couldn’t find an appropriate partner in the UK. So we turned to Innovate UK EDGE to help find a partner overseas.”

Frontier Technical began work with Innovate UK EDGE innovation and growth specialist, Jayne Codling, who recommended it consider Innovate UK’s Global Business Innovation Programme (GBIP) and supported their application.

GBIPs are designed to help some of the UK’s most innovative businesses find international partners for collaboration. The three stage GBIP programme firstly prepares the business for operating in a specific market, then takes the business to the country to meet key partners and contacts from Government, Academia and commerce, and thirdly provides post-visit specialist support to help leverage the introductions made and grow the relationships formed during the visit.

The particular GBIP selected for Frontier Technical was based on marine robotics technologies in Canada.

“The GBIP has proved absolutely pivotal,” says Trevor, “we’ve found the ideal partners to develop our autonomous modules, created strong links with the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship and will next set up a Canadian subsidiary – all despite the global pandemic.”

Trevor describes working with Jayne and Innovate UK EDGE as a breath of fresh air: “Jayne totally understands what we’re trying to do, her sectoral knowledge is fantastic and she’s very proactive in terms of recommending funding opportunities and providing a prompt when I need it.”  

“I recently relocated Frontier Technical to the South West and Jayne has been able to connect me with the key players in the region and offer guidance on what opportunities to pursue and what to avoid. I’m now beginning work with Innovate UK EDGE finance and IP specialists, with both projects looking extremely promising.

A prototype Floating Energy Platform demonstrator will be installed offshore of Plymouth in 2021 and Frontier Technical aims to commercialise fully in 2023. Innovate UK EDGE will continue to support as this Devon-based SME boosts social mobility and the quality of life in developing economies.