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Surf's up for ocean energy -- if we are first on the wave

Ireland could be a world leader in wave energy if companies secured investment, writes Conor Haughey

Some time ago a close friend of mine who is a professional yacht skipper said: "The wind is free, but catching it is fierce expensive." The same is proving to be the case for ocean energy.

The waves that constantly crash onto the west coast of Ireland represent a massive untapped resource of clean energy. The harnessing of this energy is proving to be both difficult and expensive.

A detailed assessment of Ireland's wave energy resource was carried out by the Marine Institute of Ireland in 2005. The study indicated that theoretically we have wave energy resources that are up to 18 times the total electricity requirements of the Republic. Obviously we can't harness every wave.

After we take out areas for shipping lanes, fishing and leisure pursuits the accessible wave energy resource is however estimated to be enough to supply as much as three-quarters of our energy requirements. If Saudi Arabia has been blessed with oil, Ireland has been blessed with ocean energy.

So why are we not exploiting this infinite clean energy? The answer is that we still need to work on the technology to develop commercially viable wave farms. This is both an opportunity and challenge.

There are over 100 firms worldwide developing wave energy converters.

But, unlike the wind industry the technology differs greatly from one to another. There are no industry norms. The company which comes up the winning technology that becomes the standard is set to reap huge benefits.

Against this background I set up my company Blue Power Energy in 2008.

I spent a lot of time looking at the industry and the different technologies which were being developed and I had an idea for a simple direct mechanical device that would help turn waves into energy.

I joined up with my friend Damien Browne and we engaged a mechanical design engineer to help us. The Hydraulics Marine Research Centre (HMRC) in UCC came on board to help us test our devices.

While many companies have successfully deployed wave energy devices and proved their survivability, problems have been encountered with their power take-off units This is the engine at the heart of any wave energy converter.

It converts the energy absorbed by the device from the sea into electricity which is suitable for grid connection. The efficiency with which it does this is critical to the commercial viability of the device. The results of tests showed very high efficiencies. We have since built and tested five prototypes all trialled in the HMRC. Having perfected our engine, we are now ready to fit it to a wave energy converter.

I believe the technology to successfully harness ocean waves will be developed within the next five years. I also believe that Ireland can have a wave energy industry within 10 years. Blue Power believes it can play an important part in the sector and we plan to raise €3m to fund our next stage of development.

The question for Ireland is bigger: do we want to be importers of the technology or exporters? Our aim should be to become a world leader in design, manufacture and deployment of wave energy converters.

An Irish company, Open Hydro, is well on its way to achieving this in tidal energy with their tidal turbine. We want to do the same for waves.

So how do we get there? In 2009 the then Energy Minister Eamon Ryan set aside €22m for ocean energy development and set the price that would be paid for electricity from ocean energy at 22c per Kwhr.

This was a great boost to the industry but this money has now been used up.

We have a new research and testing facility being built for the HMRC in Ringaskiddy, Co Cork.

We have two offshore test sites: one in Galway Bay, and another is being developed off Belmullet, Co Mayo.

We have two Irish wave energy companies which are well advanced, Ocean Energy and Wavebob, and there are also international companies here like Aquamarine and Carnegie. Wave energy is gaining traction in Ireland.

So what do we need to create a successful wave energy industry?

I think if you asked any of the Irish companies they would say: money. I understand that when the budgets for health, education and social welfare are being cut back that we can't expect the Government to put money into wave power. It will have to come from the private sector.

There are however ways the Government can help. They need to enact the new foreshore licensing legislation and facilitate grid connections for wave farms on the west coast. There needs to be policy direction and one body responsible for permitting grid connection or planning for a super-grid to Europe. They could look at incentives to encourage private investment.

But more than this we need a political cheerleader for ocean energy within government. Like the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond who has made ocean energy a "key economic priority". This political support has encouraged multi-billion euro energy players like ABB, Rolls Royce, Eon, GE, Siemens and the Swedish Vattenfall to invest in Scotland over Ireland.

There are lessons to be learned from the Orkney Islands, one of the remotest parts of Britain. Here the community, local government and business joined forces about 10 years ago to take ownership of the isles' future so they bet on ocean energy in both tidal and wave and it proved to be a good one.

The population is 25,000 and they have invested £20m of their own money. The British government committed £200m to accelerate their endeavour. There are now 250 people employed in the industry.

They have engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, trawler owners, deckhands and shipping companies as well as every major power and engineering company in the world now prepared to invest in a remote but booming community.

It's not too late for Ireland but we need to catch the wave before it's gone.

Conor Haughey is founder and CEO of Blue Power Energy

Sunday Indo Business