Expert view: Great rewards if we tap into this resource
Published 10/03/2014 | 02:30
IT could be the solution to our energy needs. An inexhaustible source of free power, always available and able to meet as much as 30pc of global energy demand.
Not only is there potential to produce power from the ocean, there's also the opportunity for job creation, supply chain development and a more diverse and secure energy mix.
Theoretically, the energy contained in the seas is estimated to be 32,000 terrawatt hours per year (TWh/yr) for wave energy and 7,800 TWh/yr for tides. By comparison, worldwide electricity demand is around 18,000 TWh/yr.
As much as 5,500 TWh/yr – 30pc of world electricity demand – could be captured, but the pace of development of the technology will dictate how much of this resource can be realised.
Its abundance, predictability and consistency have the potential to reduce the reliance on conventional fossil-fuel power plants, making it an attractive proposition for grid operators.
There is significant market potential for wave and tidal energy devices.
But why is it taking so long? There are many reasons. There is a lack of confidence in the existing technology. Pressure from funders more interested in the power being generated than the durability of the devices can also be held partly responsible.
There are still no commercial arrays – or groups – of wave or tidal devices in our seas, signalling that the technology available cannot generate reliably. There is also a need for a more rigorous evaluation of designs at an early stage of development.
That said, progress is being made. The technology is moving to pre-commercial demonstrations, with relatively few setbacks, raising confidence levels.
There has also been a significant underpinning of technology development. Resource data – setting out where the "best" wave and tidal resources are located – is more accessible.
Where Ireland excels is in the area of research, with world-class institutes here including Beaufort-UCC in Ringaskiddy and the Marine Renewable Energy Ireland Centre.
The Marine Renewable Energy Ireland Centre involves six partner institutes (NUIG, NUIM, UL, UCC, UCD, CIT) and it conducts research on all aspects of marine renewable energy. A formal network of research institutes across Europe is led by Beaufort-UCC.
Offshore wind, wave and marine energy devices as well as technologies to deliver power to the grid for domestic and export electricity supply are also researched, along with methods for storing the energy, planning and environmental issues.
These facilities provide support for small-scale concept testing in wave tanks, through to full-scale pre-commercial testing at ocean test sites.
Ireland is playing a huge part in unlocking the potential of ocean energy. The US, Canada, Australia, China, Japan and Taiwan, for example, are looking to us as the leader in the field.
Harnessing the vast resource that is contained in the world's oceans is an enormous challenge, but one with huge potential rewards.
DR RAYMOND ALCORN IS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT THE HYDRAULICS AND MARITIME RESEARCH CENTRE IN BEAUFORT-UCC