Harnessing the power of wind and waves

Ireland is in the right place to generate electricity, and a lot of it, out of oceanic surges, but it won't be easy sailing. Video: Ocean-based renewable energy

GALWAY, Ireland--Fierce, unforgiving seas surround Ireland's shores. And that could prove to be a moneymaker for the country.

The government, university research departments, and a growing number of entrepreneurs, are collaborating in various ways to tap the power and resources of the ocean. Wavebob and Ocean Energy, for instance, have installed wave power prototypes in Galway Bay and will experiment with larger prototypes in an energy park being created just to the north, off the coast of county Mayo.

By 2012, the government aspires to harvest 75 megawatts from waves and by 2020 to raise that energy production to 500 megawatts. It also wants to export services and equipment.

"We have the best wave resources on the planet. We also have a maritime tradition. Understanding how things work at sea, or how they don't work at sea, is very important," said Andrew Parish, CEO of Wavebob. "The common feeling is, wave (power) is where wind was 15 years ago."

For all the promise of electric power generated by the sea, there are many impediments, from construction costs to environmental concerns and the sheer unpredictability of the weather. But rising energy costs and concerns over climate change are providing renewed impetus--and a new sales pitch--for those pursuing such projects.

Wavebob buoy
Credit: Wavebob
Wavebob's buoy. In two to three
years, the company will launch
a full-scale prototype.

Wavebob plans first to target customers with the greatest need: Ireland, Tahiti, Hawaii, and New Zealand are all promising early markets. Oil companies, which run their offshore derricks on diesel power, are also potential early customers. Chevron, in fact, is an investor. Defense departments are also interested.

Meanwhile, OpenHydro has developed what looks like a giant kitchen fan for harnessing tidal power. The company has raised around $75 million and has been testing a prototype off the coast of Scotland. More turbines will go in the water off the U.K.'s Channel Islands and in Canada's Bay of Fundy over the next few years.

But power isn't the only focus. As part of the Sea Change research program implemented last year, Dermot Hurst at the Marine Institute in Galway heads up a project that will try to develop "," or ingredients with nutritional or therapeutic value, out of algae, underutilized marine species, and waste products from the fish-processing.

"It could be oils; it could be calcium extraction," he said. "When they (food processors) look for ingredients, they don't care where they came from. They care if they are safe, that they do what they say, and (that there is a) continuous supply."

The Marine Institute is also behind a project called SmartBay in which researchers will lay down a network of sensors, cameras, and other devices in and around the bay. Scientists will use the data to record environmental conditions for the fishing industry. Additionally, multinational corporations such as Intel and STMicroelectronics will lease time at SmartBay to experiment with devices they are making for national security or monitoring shipping traffic.

Galway itself is a great advertisement for the strategy. Storms lashed the town for several days during a visit I made several weeks ago as part of a tour of Ireland's tech sector. Ocean Energy pulled in its buoy because of 18-foot swells. (The commercial version of the device will survive those seas, but there's no point in risking a prototype.)

"I'm surprised they landed the plane," James Ryan, who manages strategic planning and development services at the Institute, said to me after I arrived. And Galway Bay is somewhat sheltered; out in the open Atlantic, waves can be much, much larger.

The right place--but is it the right time?
For wave power, Ireland's location is ideal. Perched in the North Atlantic, it sits in the path of the Gulf Stream, cold air masses from Greenland, and winds from North America. (The country also has some 220 million acres of underwater continental shelf that's arguably within its territorial claims.) The fetch--or the distance that wind travels without obstruction--across the Atlantic is one of the longest in the world, and that wind energy in turn propels waves.

"The average wave energy is 70 kilowatts per wave meter. There is nothing else like it. If you go to Portugal, you have an average of 40 kilowatts per meter," said Graham Brennan, program manager for renewable-energy research and development at , the government's green-technology arm. "There are higher average wind speeds in the band of the Earth that we live in. The fetch is an enormous factor."

Potentially, waves could provide up to 70 percent of Ireland's electrical power, Brennan said. (Ireland consumed 24 terawatt hours of power in 2006, and roughly 20 terawatt hours could conceivably be tapped from waves.)

It could also mean quite a number of jobs in regions of the country hit hard by the decline in fishing. The government's goal is to create 1,900 jobs. Wavebob, for one, will base some operations in Killybegs, a struggling fishing and shipbuilding center.

In January 2008, the government created a 26 million euro (about $39 million) fund for development and commercial deployment of ocean energy. The fund also provides for a feed-in tariff that will pay wave farm owners 22 cents per kilowatt hour for their energy, higher than the subsidy for wind power.

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