Background: Harnessing the ocean's power is tricky but technology is helping to turn tide
CAPTURING the power in the ocean waves and tides is proving a considerable challenge. While there is a huge amount of power to be harnessed, a device has yet to be developed that can work on a commercial basis.
However, some progress is being made. Irish company OpenHydro has developed a tidal machine and says it is close to going into mass production, while Scottish companies Aquamarine Power and Pelamis Wave Power are considered to be among the best in the world.
But developing machines doesn't come cheap. Aquamarine says it has spent some €85m on its Oyster device, with similar amounts invested by Pelamis.
The first company to prove that its technology works stands to reap many millions, as experts believe as much as 30pc of global energy requirements could be met from the ocean.
Ireland is considered to have among the best wave resources in the world, and the Government has recently announced plans to invest more than €26m between now and 2016 to help fund developers.
The Offshore Renewable Energy Development Plan also includes a guaranteed payment of 26 cent per kilowatt hour of electricity produced, which will help developers attract investment.
A working device has the potential to transform how electricity is produced, help combat climate change and create jobs in manufacturing, monitoring and deployment.
Experts believe that almost 1,500 jobs could be created in the industry here from 2020, but serious challenges remain and a target to produce 500MW of power – enough for about 400,000 homes – is unlikely to be met.
In Europe, Scotland is considered among the leading players but Ireland rates highly in relation to research and the availability of a test tank in UCC, as well as national testing sites in Galway and Mayo.
In Canada, the systems and supports have been in place for a number of years, and Elisa Obermann from Marine Renewables Canada says it has helped drive the industry.
"In terms of proving devices, the Europeans are a little ahead," Ms Obermann says. "Ocean energy is seen as an opportunity not just for technology, but for other service providers like ships, cable-laying companies and maintenance.
The job opportunities are in planning and regulatory affairs, to help secure permission for the devices, she says. Machines also need to be built, towed to mooring spots and other positions, creating opportunities in the hiring of vessels, diving, construction and operations and maintenance.
Public affairs manager with Aquamarine Power, Neil Davidson, says the ESB's West Wave project could end up being the world's first wave energy farm.
"Scotland has a world leadership position," he says. "However, there are challenges in connecting to the Scottish grid.
"Ireland could take a world leadership role in having a farm. At best, the most advanced companies have put one or two devices in the water. We're at a very early stage of industrial development."
Pelamis Wave Power has generated almost 190MW – enough power for more than 160,000 homes over 8,500 hours.
"The wave resource off the west coast of Ireland make it one of the best sites in the world, a huge untapped energy source," chief executive Richard Yemm said.
It is for this reason that the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) provided €1.4m in seed capital to wave energy companies last year.
The full costs of feasibility studies can be provided, and the first stage of developing a project is building a scale model 1/25th of the final design size, which is tested in a tank at Beaufort in Cork to see how it reacts in wave conditions.
The next step is to build a 1/4 scale device, which can be tested in a national testing site in Galway. Some €3m will be invested this year on a sub-sea cable fitted with fibre-optics and wi-fi, which will allow developers to measure how much power is being produced.
Up to four devices can be accommodated at the site, and three European firms are investigating the use of the site. One is expected to deploy in the summer.
An acoustic monitoring project is also expected to be deployed at the site this summer to passively monitor any sound emissions from wave energy devices.
The final stage is the national testing site off Belmullet, Mayo. No device in the world is ready for that challenge, but some may be in the water by 2017. Anything that survives that is expected to be well on the way to full commercialisation, helping to pave the way for a new, cheap and clean energy source.