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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.

Wavebob says its device--a large buoy, technically called a self-reacting point absorber, with an internal chamber that can accommodate mechanics and technicians--will be capable of producing 1.5 megawatts of power when the full-scale version is ready in 2010.

Incoming waves pressurize fluids contained in chambers in the buoy, and the pressure then turns a turbine. Unlike other prototypes, Wavebob's device also senses the power of incoming waves and automatically adjusts to maximize pressure and energy extraction.

The company hopes--maybe later in the next decade--to deliver power at 7.5 cents a kilowatt hour, or more than wind (6.8 cents) but less than gas-fired plants (8.3 cents). In a wave energy field, the buoys will sit a few hundred meters apart from each other.

Wave energy won't be easy, Parish adds. Wavebob's founder, William Dick, a physicist who helped computerize distilleries on the island, started working on wave power in the early 1990s. A small prototype in a wave tank in Cork and the quarter-size scale device in Galway have worked fine, but the real test comes with the full-scale device in two to three years off the Mayo coast. If it succeeds, multi-megawatt wave farms can start being planned for 2015 and beyond.

Besides needing to survive harsh seas, the devices have to be cost-effective. To this end, Wavebob has teamed up with Georgia Tech to see if it's possible to make buoys out of concrete rather than steel. Capital will also have to be spent to build coastline power stations and undersea electrical cables, which can cost 1 million euros per kilometer.

Click here to Play

Video: S.F. considers ocean-based renewable energy
News.com's Kara Tsuboi talks to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who views tidal and wave power as a swell idea. But how feasible and realistic is this new technology?

With all of the challenges, the government's goals--500 megawatts, 1,900 jobs--are pretty lofty.

"The challenge clearly is getting the first megawatt out. Right now, there are a few electrons trickling on the grid," Parish joked. "Nobody can put up their hand and say, 'We've got it cracked.'"

Then there are the regulatory and environmental issues. In reality, the rules for planning these projects in most countries don't even exist yet. One idea being floated about: putting wave farms in no-fish zones, said Derek Robertson, who runs Wavebob's U.S. arm. Still, even getting halfway would produce a noticeable bump in the energy industry.

Seafood for the masses
While energy constitutes a potential market, food and shipping concerns are driving many of the other projects at the Marine Institute. One of the goals with SmartBay, for instance, is to help come up with an early warning system for problems like red tide, which can decimate fishing stocks and result in millions in losses, or to monitor the health of prawn beds. After conducting tests and landing local customers, the know-how will hopefully be exported.

"It's not that we want to particularly monitor Galway Bay. Our intent is to become a major expert in this field," Ryan said.

Knowledge about the ocean, he added, is fairly sketchy. The Marine Institute, for instance, recently completed a digital map of the bay. It's the first map of the sea floor since the British undertook the job with chains and weights in the 1860s.

Some of the sensors that could grow out of this program are video cameras that can track fish movements and DNA probes that can take censuses of microorganisms. There could also be acoustic and weather monitors for marine traffic.

"We think it will revolutionize oceanic monitoring," Ryan said. "The seabed in deep water is as a least as hostile as deep space. We can monitor Mars on a 24/7 basis, but we're not yet able to do that with the ocean."

"It's about time we caught up with the space guys," he added.