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Wave energy: when's it coming?

Wave energy, ocean energy or blue energy – industry experts tell us what it’s all about and why Ireland may be falling behind.

Image: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/Press Association Images

ASK ANY SURFER and you’ll hear the same answer – Ireland has some of the best waves in the world.

But they’re not only good for surfing – they could potentially provide Ireland with a vast proportion of its energy requirements. We’ve heard about this possibility for years and hundreds of millions of euro have been pumped into research and development. One study even claimed wave energy resources could have met 75 per cent of these needs by 2006.

Obviously, that date is passed but are we getting any closer to this goal and, if so, what would that mean for the consumer? TheJournal.ie spoke to a number of experts in the field to find out.

From the outset industry leaders outlined to us how generating energy from waves requires a “very difficult technology” which is not yet mature. At the moment, there are about 12 different technologies floating around at various stages of development.

“You have to generate power in an unfriendly environment – one from which most people stay away,” explains Kieran O’Brien, the European Business Development Manager for Carnegie Wave, one of the leaders in the field.

Developing machines that work is not the problem. The real challenge is getting these machines to survive in extreme ocean conditions.

“It is perfectly possible to design the necessary equipment,” continued O’Brien. “But it has to be able to withstand force 9 gales.”

A Wavebob generator in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.

Taking the west coast of Ireland as an example, O’Brien explains that a metre of an average wave will be able to generate 40 kilowatts of energy but this increases by a factor of up to 100 when there is a storm.

“We need something in the water that will extract that energy but will still be there when those storms hit,” continued O’Brien.

One megawatt (which would equate to one machine) would run about 1,000 Irish homes.

Not making a contribution just yet

So far the industry has over-promised and under-delivered, according to O’Brien, who comes from an engineering background and used to be a director in ESB before retiring in 2005. That is not to say it won’t be a billion dollar sector in future years.

However, it is a capital heavy investment and investors, at the moment, are cautious as nobody out there is producing grid connected electricity at any scale.

The hope is that by 2016, Carnegie will be able to create about five to 10 megawatts but that will only happen if there is no barriers in terms of investment.

“We have to get the money and its realistically up to hundreds of millions of euro,” adds O’Brien.

The company would actually have to move into the 20 megawatt tranche before producing economic electricity.

To put that into context, Andrew Parish of Irish company Wavebob says that 6,000 megawatts would provide more electricity to Ireland than it would need.

Earlier this week, Carnegie received funding from the Australian government to put a demonstrator in place off the coast of Perth. It will prove the firm’s technology and help make it more competitive.

Peter Coyle of the Marine Renewables Industry Association believes Ireland will start seeing a contribution to its supplies from renewable energy companies in about five years time.

“We are lucky that the majority of device developers are in Ireland and that we have several hundred researchers working on this in our universities,” he said.

Brendan Halligan of the Sustainable Energy Association of Ireland says that eventually renewables could be as important to Ireland as grass is. But, that point is at least 20 years off, according to the experts as hurdles of permitting and machinery need to be overcome.

A missed opportunity for Ireland?

Although difficulties with machinery and licencing remain, there is no problem with Ireland’s waves.

The Celtic Tiger boast that Ireland could be to wave energy what Saudi Arabia is to oil is actually correct, according to Coyle, O’Brien and Parish.

“Ireland has genuinely got some of the very best waves in the world,” says O’Brien. “The regime here is about 30 per cent better than Scotland from an engineering point of view.”

However, Scotland has nudged in front of Ireland in terms of where it is at.

Both Carnegie and Wavebob have generated electricity in Ireland, off the west coast of Galway and Clare and have benefited from SEAI grants and test sites but Parish says that “truthfully, the commercial future of wave energy lies overseas”.

“There is no short term opportunities for R&D funding in Ireland and our business interests are abroad,” he said.

Wavebob has moved into the US market to tap into an open market and excellent marine engineering expertise.

According to Parish, “the clear world leader” in terms of vision and facilitation to support ocean energy is Scotland. Other countries, including Spain and France, have also been pushing the issue, putting time and effort into supporting developments.

In those areas, private investment is “flooding in” as governments facilitate infrastructure.

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“Ireland has stood still and, in truth, it has fallen behind,” continues Parish. “Ireland has a unique wave – one of the best in the world. We have missed an opportunity to maximise that resource.”

Over the coming years, Wavebob will be deploying wave generators in areas “where it makes sense to do so” and that, unfortunately, will not be Ireland.

The next machine is going to Scotland and the one after that to Portugal. Because of certain constraints, the machines will be both made and delivered locally.

The industry may be further behind where it thought it was going to be at by 2012, but Parish strongly refutes the idea that money has been wasted in trying to develop so-called blue energy.

“Although Ireland has missed an opportunity for short term job creation, the money has been given to research – and that is never a waste. It contributes to valuable intellectual property,” he said.

The key point seems to be that the whole sector is still at pre-commercial level. It is not yet contributing to electricity supplies or targets. Eventually, Ireland will expect to have up to 15 per cent of its energy requirements supplied by wave sources.

However, the consumer will have to wait even longer to notice a difference.

Electricity will continue to flow into somebody’s homes and power appliances regardless whether it is generated by brown, green or blue energy.

In fact, there will need to be a portfolio of energy sources to ensure there is no break in service. The reality is companies will sell to the utility (ESB or Bord Gáis) who will sell it on as a mix. Eventually, customers may be able to choose their mix of electricity, taking account of price and source.

In the shorter term, there will also be no price difference – in fact renewables will remain more expensive than oil- or gas-generated electricity unless the price of those fuels shoots up.

It could also become competitive in price if subsidy arrangements are agreed.

Coyle, the chairman of MRAI, however, looks at the bigger picture. The consumer, particularly the Irish consumer, will benefit from renewables for more reasons than value.

“At the moment, Ireland has one of the most insecure energy supplies in the world,” he says. “A lot of electricity is generated from gas that comes from Scotland. If anything happened to that pipeline, we would lose electricity in many areas for a long period of time.”

A mix of wind, wave and tidal energy could provide a greater source and by using all three any threat of intermittent service would be reduced.

“Waves and wind do not actually go hand in hand as waves are created because of what is happening in another part of the world hours earlier,” continues Coyle. “A blend of the energies is the solution.”

Looking at other possible impacts, Coyle notes the issue of protecting the environment – the problem of carbon emissions, the dangers of fracking and the possibility that oil will run out by 2047. But that’s all for another day.

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