Alpen Steel | Renewable Energy

Catching the global ocean energy wave



 Award-winning Irish tidal technology firm OpenHydro demonstrating its wave energy platform

With continuing State support, energy from the sea could be key to our economic future

IT’S KNOWN as the “Nokia” factor. Just as the mobile phone manufacturer is credited with rescuing Finland from its economic difficulties in the early 1990s, so ocean energy has been identified as a potential “lifebelt” for Ireland.

Ireland, Scotland and the southern ocean in Antarctica have some of the most energetic wave locations on the globe – “but we don’t want to be just watching others take advantage of that, while we supply the sandwiches out to the guys on the rig”, says Sustainable Energy Ireland’s (SEI) Eoin Sweeney.

The awarding of €4.3 million in funding from SEI to 10 Irish ocean energy companies earlier this month for continued research and development is a signal in difficult fiscal times that the Government is very committed to the sector, he says.

Earlier this week, Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan indicated that Ireland’s renewable energy potential in wave power could surpass Denmark’s achievements in wind, when he endorsed the Wavebob–Vattenfall partnership, Tonn Energy, in Dublin.

The industry – which has recently formed its own lobby group, the Marine Renewables Industry Association (MRIA), for companies involved in both wave and tidal energy development – is certainly more upbeat than it was six months ago. Then it seemed that a €26 million ocean energy plan unveiled by Ryan back in January 2008 was mired in bureaucracy.

That plan included development of an ocean energy unit within the statutory organisation, SEI, and the introduction of a new feed-in-tariff for wave energy of €220 per megawatt (mW) hour.

It also allocated €1 million towards University College Cork’s (UCC) national ocean energy facility run by Dr Tony Lewis, and €2 million to develop a grid-connected wave energy test site at Annagh Head/French Point.

Ironically, north Mayo’s exposed coast, home to the Corrib gas field and the attendant controversy over its processing onshore, has some of the most energetic waves among Atlantic seaboard counties surveyed by the Marine Institute.

Interest in wave and tidal energy is not new here, but was given a fresh impetus as a result of State commitments to renewable energy targets and action on addressing climate change. Cork-based civil engineer Dr Peter McCabe developed the McCabe wave pump, comprising two articulated pontoons connected around a third central pontoon, which were designed to rise and fall with each wave and drive a hydraulic motor and generator.

The device was deployed in the Shannon estuary by his partners in Hydam Technology and attracted interest from Prof Michael McCormick of the naval architecture and ocean engineering department at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

In 2005, the Marine Institute and SEI published an ocean energy strategy, which noted that the estimated practical wave energy resource was greater than 6,000mW, but also pointed out that wave converters, still in development phase, must be capable of surviving extreme weather, which could prove costly.

It noted that tidal energy outputs were more predictable and regular, but could have limited resource potential here, with most suitable locations on the Antrim coast and areas such as Strangford Lough.

As a result of the study, enthusiastically endorsed by former marine minister Noel Dempsey, a quarter-scale wave energy test site was established off Spiddal, Co Galway, and two companies – Wavebob based in Maynooth, Co Kildare, and Ocean Energy – completed trials there.

Last year, outgoing US ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, who had taken a sea trip out to look at Ocean Energy’s device at Spiddal, expressed frustration at Ireland’s apparent dilatory approach. “There is a Nokia opportunity here in Ireland,” he told a Marine Institute ocean energy workshop in Galway in July 2008.

Here was an opportunity to start a “domestic industry that could serve the world”, he said. “This is like having a horse at the track with a 300-metre advantage at the start,” he added. “It’s your race to lose.”

Ireland is not alone in its geographical advantage. “The Scots are going for broke in what they clearly see to be the replacement for the North Sea in terms of overall economic impact,” according to Peter Coyle, formerly of IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland and now director of the MRIA.

The international race to develop the technology sustained a setback almost a year ago. Scottish company Pelamis had located what was billed as the world’s first commercial wave farm off the coast of Portugal. It had already installed a full-scale prototype and generated electricity from it to the British electricity grid at the European Marine Energy Centre in the Orkney Islands, Scotland.

However, the three Pelamis wave energy converters, capable of generating 75kW of power each, hit technical problems several months after their deployment in autumn 2008 and had been towed ashore.

The company, which didn’t confirm this until early this year, was also facing financial problems because of the turmoil at Australian group Babcock Brown, its main shareholder at the time.

Meanwhile, Vancouver-based Finavera Renewables was described in one trade journal as having “given the industry a black eye” when its test buoy was lost off the Oregon coast.

If the Pelamis experience rattled investor confidence, it was temporary, according to James Ryan, Marine Institute ocean energy project manager.

“When the price of oil is low, there tends to be less interest in what we are doing. We’re at the stage that wind power was at 30 years ago, and it had its own development challenges. We are still a while away from commercial reality in terms of a reliable design,” he explains.

Thus, ocean energy has not benefited from the recent European Commission stimulus package or the €200 million worth of “soft loans” towards the ESB’s renewable energy businesses by the European Investment Bank.

However, as Dr Tony Lewis of UCC notes, Finnish wave energy technology firm AW-Energy has signed a $4.4 million (€2.93 million) contract with the EU, the first under the EU’s CALL FP7 demonstration of innovative full-size systems. The “WaveRoller” unit, which has a nominal capacity of 300kW, is to be deployed off the Portuguese “wave capital”, Peniche, and connected to the grid.

The big issue for the sector remains the cost of power generation. According to media reports, Scottish firm Aquamarine Power expects to sell its wave energy device at “less than $6.5 million per megawatt installed”, a figure that compares to “about $1.5 million per megawatt installed” for wind energy.

“There’s a lot happening here, with the State’s test site at Annagh Head, and there’s a study on a minigrid for renewables being undertaken by Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland,”Dr Lewis says.

“A number of companies have been testing with us in UCC, but Portugal is forging ahead, as is Britain – and under the new US administration, investment in ocean energy has doubled from $20 to $40 million this year and is set to continue. So we have to keep up the impetus.”

This concern was echoed recently by Ocean Energy’s chief executive John McCarthy, who believes the correct technology could create up to 20,000 jobs and boost our export earnings.

Wavebob, which signed a co-operation agreement last year with Swedish utility company Vattenfall, has been developing US links with a base in Annapolis, Maryland, home to the US Naval Academy and an ocean energy “cluster”.

“We have made a great headstart here, but the US will take the good ideas and expedite their implementation . . . because that’s what they do,” Andrew Parish, Wavebob’s chief executive, says.

He welcomes the recent SEI grant aid as a significant step towards Ireland meeting its target of 500mW of ocean energy connected to the national grid by 2020, as does James Ives, chief executive of OpenHydro, the award-winning tidal technology firm.

OpenHydro, which has also established international links with British energy supplier EDF and Nova Scotia Power, recently shipped a 10-metre open-centre turbine from its Carlingford Lough technical centre to the Bay of Fundy in Canada.

It says that the €2 million SEI allocation will be assigned to the design and development of its “next generation” 16m turbine, sub-sea base and installation barge.

Offshore resources: potential and risks 

IRELAND could meet its own domestic needs, and also export electricity generated by offshore wind, wave and tidal energy resources alone. That’s the forecast of the Marine Renewables Industry Association (MRIA), which represents key players in wave and tide.

However, there are some considerable challenges and some “big unknowns”, the MRIA’s Peter Coyle points out. Most of that energy resource is on the western seaboard, whereas the grid is in the east. He is also keeping a keen eye on the very keen pace of development over the water in Scotland.

The MRIA has prepared a “white paper” on the thorny issue of foreshore licensing and leases – as fish farmers know, the current system has not been working well.

A promised transfer of some significant foreshore functions to the Department of the Environment appears to be taking an age. The MRIA is also concerned that a strategic environmental assessment of the impact of renewable energy offshore, recently initiated by SEI under an EU directive, does not hold up testing.

At the same time, its members accept that such an assessment is imperative in mapping out potential areas and avoiding conflicts with other marine users.

LORNA SIGGINS Marine Correspondent


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