Blowing Wind Out Of The Water

Article aimed for The Economist.

Can new wave energy devices usurp the rise of offshore wind farms? Words by George Richardson

Just off the south coast of Cornwall, in Falmouth docks, there is a trial device that, even though it is a scale model, takes up a quarter of a dry dock the size of two Wembley football pitches. After completion it will be floated out to a test site in Falmouth Bay where it will be monitored for its performance, its potential flaws, and its ability to cope in live conditions.

Ocean Power Technology (OPT) is the company that is pioneering this new type of wave point energy module, dubbed Powerbuoy. Charles Dunleavy, CEO of OPT said in an interview with Bloomberg that, “Wave power is such a dense form of energy, it’s about a thousand times more dense than wind energy.” He stated that, “90% of the time we have waves that we can harness. We are squarely competitive with offshore wind as far as price and at 15 cents per kilowatt hour, it’s actually less expensive that some solar plants too.”

It appears that although 90% of waves that can be harnessed, the technology is yet to advance to the level where these waves can be used efficiently. Dr. Helen Smith of Exeter University, an expert on wave modelling, explained that these wave devices need very specific conditions in which to operate. “A device will be designed to a particular type of sea state.” She explained that devices need to calibrate to various wave periods and heights in order to optimise power production output but this can be challenging. “It’s not necessarily easy to quickly be able to change those properties.”

Still, there could be more benefits to wave energy production than statistics. Peter Child, MD of AP Group in Falmouth, the company responsible for the manufacture of this trial device, explained that a working version of the device would be a potential rival for the wind turbine industry. “They have a much lower visual impact than wind turbines and could be placed closer to shore. It makes them easier and more accessible for things like maintenance and installation.”

Despite their optimism, the technology is not yet ready. The company launched their first trial off the coast of Scotland in 2011. It was a full-scale model but it was not connected to the national grid and could only provide data of potential power production. The device being built at Falmouth docks will be sent out to the FAB Test site to gather further data on the wave spectra.

There are two facilities on the South coast of Cornwall.  FAB Test, which is a ‘nursery’ site for scaled devices that do not produce power for the grid and that are under observation for further development. This is the one found just out of Falmouth Harbour. The other, larger trialling facility called Wave Hub can host up to 25 fully functioning wave energy devices, off the beaches of Hayle. The Wave Hub site is particularly important with regards to the development process of wave energy devices since there is an onshore transformer where the devices can be connected to sell energy back to the National Grid.

OPT will conclude their FAB Test trials by the end of 2012 and have stated that a fully commercial model of their Power Buoy device should be ready for deployment before 2013 at the Wave Hub site. If successful, the company estimates an annual generation of renewable energy of 13,800 megawatt hours.

The coalition government launched the Renewable Obligation scheme whereby it subsidises the expense and balances the need for developing renewable energy firms to provide investors with long-term financial certainty. Ofgem regulate the allocation of ROCs, (Renewable Obligation Certificates) where every megawatt hour (MWh) of eligible renewable electricity generated receives a ROC. These certificates can be ‘cashed in’ to Ofgem as demonstrations of a companies compliance with the obligation and so the more power a single device makes through renewable energy, the more of a premium a company can accrue to offset the enormous initial investments required in starting up renewable energy devices.

The sooner a competitor company begins producing electricity, the sooner they can capitalise on the government incentives. This makes the Wave Hub site near Hayle a competitive staging platform as rival renewable firms scramble to get their devices functioning.

Dunleavy appeared to appreciate potential rivals. During his interview he said, “we would welcome them and we want to see more of them. We know that this could be a billion dollar industry. We’re not going to realise the full potential of wave energy until we have a larger scale of activity.” It is evident from the OPT website that the company is keen to be “one of the first to install a working device at Wave Hub.”

Readiness is the crux of the problem for wave energy advancement. David Haverson, an associate research fellow for Exeter University, specialising in wind energy development, explained that the OPT devices are not imposing any risk of a miraculous uprising in the renewable energy sector. “These devices are far from ready. Granted that the technology works and in theory they could be viable assets to the country’s goals of achieving 50% renewable energy by 2030.” He went on to explain how there are specialised seagoing vessels that have been built and customised to pile in the foundations for offshore wind turbines. “That sort of infrastructure just doesn’t exist for wave energy.”

Although many of the wave devices have been tested and produced some promising results, the catch appears to be that without significant and rapid investment into the fledgling industry, the wave renewable energy sector is likely to remain static for quite some time. Haverson pointed out, “renewables as a whole is one of THE highest risk areas you could possibly invest into but only because investments on the scales that are sought after require sold estimates and returns. Its just too new for those predictions.” He added, “It costs tens of millions to develop a single prototype.”

Despite the slow development, if the devices are working and if each test is successful then there will be investors based on even limited results. The ROCs incentives will ultimately aid a project’s development and eventually we may see whole arrays of working wave point module devices producing power to the grid. Even so, the government’s goal of reaching 50% of renewable energy by 2050 will require a combined effort of every natural resource that our country has. Dr. Smith said that “in the UK, by the end of 2010, wind, wave and tidal combined produced 10 terawatt hours… Wave and tidal combined actually only produced 0.01% of that total.”

ENDS

Comments; Although only a short article, this required securing extensive interviews with specific specialists in order to depict an accurate portrayal of events. I could not get hold of any representatives of OPT and so used an interview posted on their website that essentially covered all the aspects that I needed to know. The original content of this article is reflected in the choice of opposing viewpoints from the various professionals. I will also admit that this article is fairly boring but I needed to pad out the negotiated portfolio with some more substantially researched and informed topics rather than just film reviews and articles about hats!