Alpen Steel | Renewable Energy

Waves Start to Make Ripples in Renewable Energy World

Little electricity is being generated from the ocean except at scattered test sites around the world, many supported by European governments.

That is partly because the technical difficulties of making such systems work have been great.

However, the next three years are expected to be critical in determining whether such power is cost effective, with about 30 wave energy projects expected to start operations, according to Emerging Energy Research, an alternative energy advisory firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

One company providing lessons in the trials and tribulations of ocean energy is Pelamis Wave Power, the world’s first attempt at a commercial wave power operation.

As governments and power companies pour money into research and technology, “they’re taking a close look at Pelamis and other leading wave technologies to bolster their understanding of costs, risks and development potential of ocean energy,” said Alex Klein, a research director at Emerging Energy Research.

Pelamis, a Scottish company, deployed its Aguçadoura wave park off the coast of Portugal in 2008. But four months after it was connected to an electricity grid and began generating power it ran into technical difficulties that required its three energy converters to be removed from the sea. Pelamis blamed it on “excessive wear on bearings” and has since identified a solution.

But its troubles did not end there. The project was besieged by financial problems when the Australian investment group Babcock & Brown — the major stakeholder in Aguçadoura — collapsed during the financial crisis, leaving the project in limbo.

In September, the Portuguese utility Energias de Portugal and the engineering company Efacec purchased Babcock & Brown’s 77 percent stake in Aguçadoura. Pelamis owns the rest.

Pelamis said a new version of its machine that is 180 meters, or 590 feet, in length, is being manufactured at Leith Docks in Edinburgh for the German utility E.ON and would be tested at the European Marine Energy Center in Orkney, Scotland.

“Our focus with Babcock & Brown was always with the project being a stepping stone to the next stage of a much larger project,” said Max Carcas, business development director of Pelamis.

Mr. Carcas said the logistics of operating and maintaining the wave machines turned out to be just as important as their conceptual design.

“I think it’s pretty normal with a new technology that there are trial periods,” said Hugo Chandler, a renewable energy analyst at the International Energy Agency. “Problems are always found which have to be resolved.”

Suffice to say that the technology will need time to mature.

“Wave energy technologies are still in the preliminary stages of development, where wind turbines were approximately 15-20 years ago,” said Annette von Jouanne, one of the leading researchers in the field, of Oregon State University.

But Ms. von Jouanne predicted that the catch-up time for wave energy would be accelerated by available advanced technologies and materials and because of lessons learned from other renewable industries.

Other countries developing the technology include Ireland, South Korea and the United States. About 100 companies are working on projects, and many of them are seeking financing, but only a few have ocean-tested their products.

One of them is Ocean Energy, an Irish start-up that concluded in August a two-and-a-half-year test period in Ireland, where its quarter-scale device consistently produced electricity from waves. It aims to raise €15 million, or $22 million, by March.

Another is Aquamarine Power, a Scottish start-up that installed its Oyster wave energy prototype over the summer at the European Marine Energy Center.

“We are testing a full-scale unit,” said Martin McAdam, chief executive of Aquamarine. “But we need to go through two more iterations before we can get something that is mainstream and viable.”

In September, Aquamarine raised £10 million, or nearly $16 million, during its first round of funding, with a goal to raise £50 million to use over three years.


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