A Scottish quango is handing out £2.4 million in subsidies to companies willing to try their hand at cracking the problem of wave power technology. The generous grants, of up to £300,000 per company, represent only the first round of spending aimed at making Scotland 100 per cent reliable on renewable energies by 2020.
A press release by Wave Energy Scotland states: “Wave Energy Scotland is seeking applications from businesses for 100%-funded SBRI (Small Business Research Initiative) development contracts for novel wave energy converter devices.
“Up to £300,000 per project is available for the first stage of the competition. Successful projects at stage 1 can then compete for stage 2 and stage 3 funding.”
This call follows an earlier call in March for similarly competitive bids to develop secondary energy conversion technologies.
The Scottish Parliament has set itself the target of reaping 100 per cent of Scotland’s energy requirements from renewable energy within just five years. Scotland is already well on the way to achieving that target. By peppering the Scottish countryside with wind farms and the coastline with hydro plants, it achieved a headline figure of 40 per cent derived from renewables in 2012. By comparison, Britain at large derived 19.2 per cent of its energy from renewables in 2014, the majority of which was generated by biomass and onshore wind.
But to go further, other sources of renewable energy will need to be tapped. The Scottish Parlimaent hopes that wave power will hold the key, and, despite claiming poverty in the face of austerity budget cuts, has granted Wave Energy Scotland a budget of £14.3 million for 2015/16. Little wonder, perhaps, that Scottish National Party Leader Nicola Sturgeon has vowed to “argue the anti-austerity case”.
Wave power has long been discussed in renewable energy circles thanks to the sheer abundance of it. The World Energy Council estimated in 1993 that the oceans contain two terrawatts of energy, enough to generate roughly twice the world’s current energy production. But if wave power is to be harnessed, money – and lots of it – will be the key. Experts in the field warn that wave power is 30 years away from viability, thanks, predominantly to the high costs involved in developing the new technology.
Last year Scottish company Pelamis Wave Technology had to call in the administrators after it failed to secure ongoing funding to develop its energy converter. Lindsay Leask, senior policy manager at Scottish Renewables said that the company’s collapse “shows both the challenging conditions in which this sector operates and the risks inherent in developing new technology”.
At the same time another Scottish company, Aquamarine, shed 30 staff in a bid to stay afloat. Aquamarine’s chief executive, John Malcolm said that the job losses were “a consequence of the considerable financial, regulatory and technical challenges faced by the ocean energy sector as a whole.”
Similarly, Australia, which has the perfect environment in which to take advantage of wave power being surrounded by the stuff, and large waves at that, is experiencing similar difficulties.
In 2010, a converter built and installed by Oceanlinx at a cost of $5 million broke free of it’s moorings and smashed against the New South Wales shoreline. Two years later the company prepared a new model to be tested off the South Australian coast, but it sank on its way to the site, taking the company’s finances down with it.
Then in 2014, Ocean Power Technologies Australia was forced to hand back a $66.5 million grant from the Australian Renewable Energy National Agency and Lockheed Martin to build the world’s largest wave power farm, after it concluded that the project was far too ambitious and would never be realised.
The big issue for wave power is the environment itself. Whereas wind power only needs to harness one variable, wind speed, waves are three dimensional and can come at a turbine from all sides, making the problem rather more complex. Add in the corrosive nature of salt water, and the problems associated with working on the sea bed, and the engineering challenge borders on insurmountable.
Nonetheless, those working within the industry are optimistic. “Wave energy has gone beyond proof of concept,” says Dr Peter Osman, a researcher from CSIRO’s Energy Transformed Flagship. “We’re close to getting to the phase where we can prove to investors and governments that the technology can generate reliable and affordable energy. And that’s when the industry can really take off.”
Others are less so. George Hagerman, a research associate in the Virginia Tech University’s Advanced Research Institute and a contributor to the U.S. Department of Energy’s assessment of wave energy’s potential says: “You’ve got all those cost issues of working in the ocean that offshore wind illustrates, and then you’ve got [an energy] conversion technology that really no one seems to have settled on a design that is robust, reliable, and efficient.
“I’d like to be optimistic, but I don’t think realistically I can be.”