Things are moving fast in the world of renewable energy, with wind and solar power continuing to make big advances. But amidst all the good news, there’s one technology that’s missing in action: wave power.
Ocean waves should be a huge power resource. The incoming wave power along Britain’s Atlantic coast has been estimated at 40kw per metre of coastline. It’s impossible to capture it all of course, but I thought we’d have a handful of local power plants up and running by now. I remember seeing the footage of the Pelamis ‘sea snake’ being tested in Scotland. Whatever happened to that?
Not much, as it happens. After 15 years of research, Pelamis went into administration last year. That’s a shame, since they were the first to generate power from the waves at scale, and they won’t ever see the rewards for that. The investors won’t get their millions back, but hopefully their research won’t go to waste.
The fundamental challenge with wave power is pretty simple, as Chris Goodall explains: “The forces are so enormous that energy collection structures have to be implausibly strong and heavy and construction costs are therefore excessive.” It’s easy enough to make something that can generate electricity from gentle swells, but everything has to be engineered to handle the worst possible weather. At the Orkney testing site, that could mean conditions like those in December last year – 144 mph winds and 12 metre wave heights. You’re going to need a lot of heavy steel, which unfortunately doesn’t take kindly to saltwater.
Is wave power a lost cause then? Well, the sea snakes may have washed up, but there are several other operators testing prototypes in Scotland, and there are other clusters of companies running trials in Australia and Oregon. A company called Aquamarine just announced some very positive results for their Oyster 800 device, but they did halve their workforce last year.
So far, the most reliable thing to come out of the Orkney testing site is photo opportunities for Alex Salmond. The real proof of wave power’s potential has to be the arrival of larger companies and commercial wave farms. On that front, the news is equally mixed.
One piece of good news is that last month the world’s first grid-connected wave farm was switched on in Australia. Developed by Carnegie Wave Power, its answer to the engineering challenge is to operate underwater rather than on the surface. Buoys tethered to the sea floor capture the swell, and pump seawater to a hydroelectric station on the shore. It will provide electricity and desalinated fresh water to Australia’s largest naval base.
On the other hand, Lockheed Martin announced ‘the world’s largest wave energy project’ last year, also in Australia, only to quietly shelve it a couple of months later.
In short, the wave power industry hasn’t cracked it yet. It’s an emerging technology. Pessimists will say it hasn’t come anywhere in ten years. Optimists might echo Edison, who joked that he discovered 10,000 things that didn’t work before delivering a workable light bulb, and argue that it is on the cusp of commercial viability.
Navigating between those extremes, Dave Levitan points out a parallel with wind power. Thirty years ago the industry hadn’t settled on an optimal turbine design, and prototyping was still going on. Wave power is in a similar position, and we may yet see a breakthrough. Since wind power and solar have got the march on it however, it is likely to remain a marginal technology, one for island states and coastal communities.