Waves making ripples in energy world


However, the next three years are expected to be critical in determining whether such power is cost effective, with about 30 wave energy projects expected to start operations, according to Emerging Energy Research, an alternative energy advisory firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

One company providing lessons in the trials and tribulations of ocean energy is Pelamis Wave Power, the world’s first attempt at a commercial wave power operation.

As governments and power companies pour money into research and technology, “they’re taking a close look at Pelamis and other leading wave technologies to bolster their understanding of costs, risks and development potential of ocean energy,” said Alex Klein, a research director at Emerging Energy Research.

Pelamis, a Scottish company, deployed its Aguçadoura wave park off the coast of Portugal in 2008. But four months after it was connected to an electricity grid and began generating power it ran into technical difficulties that required its three energy converters to be removed from the sea. Pelamis blamed it on ‘excessive wear on bearings’ and has since identified a solution.

But its troubles did not end there. The project was besieged by financial problems when the Australian investment group Babcock & Brown — the major stakeholder in Aguçadoura — collapsed during the financial crisis, leaving the project in limbo.
In September, the Portuguese utility Energias de Portugal and the engineering company Efacec purchased Babcock & Brown’s 77 per cent stake in Aguçadoura. Pelamis owns the rest.

Pelamis said a new version of its machine that is 180 meters in length, is being manufactured at Leith Docks in Edinburgh for the German utility E.ON and would be tested at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, Scotland.
“Our focus with Babcock & Brown was always with the project being a stepping stone to the next stage of a much larger project,” said Max Carcas, business development director of Pelamis.

Carcas said the logistics of operating and maintaining the wave machines turned out to be just as important as their conceptual design.

“I think it’s pretty normal with a new technology that there are trial periods,” said Hugo Chandler, a renewable energy analyst at the International Energy Agency. “Problems are always found which have to be resolved.”

Suffice to say that the technology will need time to mature.

Nascent stage

“Wave energy technologies are still in the preliminary stages of development, where wind turbines were approximately 15-20 years ago,” said Annette von Jouanne, one of the leading researchers in the field, of Oregon State University.

But Annette predicted that the catch-up time for wave energy would be accelerated by available advanced technologies and materials and because of lessons learned from other renewable industries.

Other countries developing the technology include Ireland, South Korea and the United States. About 100 companies are working on projects, and many of them are seeking financing, but only a few have ocean-tested their products.

“Wave is probably the last, globally distributed, abundant renewable resource that remains untapped,” said Michael Ottaviano, managing director of Carnegie Wave Energy, an Australian company that plans to license its wave power technology to utilities.

The industry is heavily reliant on government funding. The financial crisis has not helped investment prospects, either. “I’ve gone through a number of start-up companies,” said  McAdam, “and this has been more difficult than previously.”

Carnegie Wave Energy, which reported a loss of 9 million Australian dollars in its 2009 financial year following a loss in 2008 of more than 18 million dollars mainly because of research and development expenditure, has seen its shares double in value since January, in anticipation of commercial success.

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