The waters of the UK could yield as much as 50 terawatt-hours per year of electricity in the form of wave power, and Wales is determined to shave off a slice of it. Last month the Wales-based company Marine Power Systems capped a nine-year R&D effort with the launch of its new prototype WaveSub.
That’s the first of a series of steps leading to commercial deployment, and it’s more bad news for fossil fuels. If the UK could tap its wave and tidal energy potential today, that renewable resource would account for 20% of its electricity consumption.
Making Wave Energy Work
The International Energy Agency puts the total global wave power resource at about 80,000 terawatt-hours per year, though in practical terms only about 4,000 is accessible. Still, that’s a juicy plum and Wales is among several nations making a serious try at it.
The challenges are intimidating. Immersing machinery in salt water for years on end is difficult even in calm seas, and stormy weather adds another level of problems to work out.
All of this leads to mounting costs, and that gets to the nut of the problem: how to design a wave energy device that is both hardy and economical.
MPS has hit on a wave energy solution that involves leveraging off-the-shelf parts to keep costs down, and transporting the device out to sea is a relatively simple tow job.
In contrast to buoy-type wave energy devices, the WaveSub is positioned below the surface. That protects it from rough seas, and its depth can be altered depending on the ferocity of a storm. At any depth, the WaveSub continues to harvest energy by moving in an orbital motion with subsurface waves.
The prototype is a smaller version of the full scale WaveSub, which will clock in at 100 meters long. Rated at 5 megawatts, or the equivalent of about 5,000 homes, the full scale WaveSub will be positioned about 10 kilometers offshore.
Meanwhile, the prototype is heading for the marine energy FaBTest site in Cornwall, England for a soup-to-nuts test run:
MPS will demonstrate the WaveSub’s power-generation capacity across a broad range of sea conditions, the speed and cost-effective price at which it can be installed, its low maintenance costs and its survivability through the harshest of conditions.
Wales Is Serious About Wave Energy
Money, of course, is the biggest challenge of all, and a decade-long R&D program is not cheap. So far WaveSub has been financed by private funders and a series of “highly competitive grants,” all totaling £5 million.
R&D is one thing. Commercializing wave energy also requires the kind of public subsidies and policies that rocketed the UK wind industry into global leadership.
In a blog post marking the October launch of the new WaveSub protoype, the company’s CEO Gareth Stockman makes the case for increasing public support for wave energy.
Stockman bases his argument on the dramatic drop in the cost of wind power, thanks to a heavy lift by the public purse. Now that wind is a proven, mature technology, the “big players” in the wind sector continue to gobble up the lion’s share of subsidies. Stockman argues that wave energy should get a turn:
Marine is one of these sectors and its potential – particularly in the UK – cannot be ignored. In our recent report Making Wave Power Work we outline how our coastal waters represent 35% of Europe’s wave energy potential…Our own techno-economic studies show that the Levelised Cost of Energy (LCOE) for the WaveSub can with time match prices being reached by offshore wind.
The timing could be right for MPS. Stockman notes that £450 million has already been pumped into the UK marine energy supply chain, with an additional £4 million pledge from the Welsh.
Here’s Stockman enthusing over the potentials:
Ultimately, decades of R&D are now reaching fruition. As such, we are in position to take wave energy technology to the next level and reap the economic and environmental benefits it will bring….we’ve witnessed a shift in attitudes and interest surrounding marine energy. Starting out in 2008 we had just a handful of academics to work with. Today, we employ many skilled marine engineers and collaborate with six universities on a raft (pun intended) of research projects that are running alongside the WaveSub’s development…
In a demonstration of the strength of the UK marine supply chain, MPS notes that the WaveSub was fully built in Wales.
Meanwhile, Over In The USA…
Wales is in a good position to take credit for leading the global wave energy market, though other countries are also coming on strong (notably, Australia).
With its long coastlines, the US has been eyeballing wave energy, too. Though President* Trump is not known to be a fan of renewable energy in general, the US Department of energy has stepped up its funding for marine energy R&D projects.
In the latest move, last June the Energy Department distributed $12 million in funding for four projects, including the agency’s Wave Energy Prize competition winner and runner up, AquaHarmonics and California Wave Power Technologies.
The other two awards go to support wave energy devices on an industry-wide basis. A project at Oregon’s Portland state is aimed at developing a low cost, high efficiency — and waterproof — magnetically geared generator for wave energy devices, and California-based ReVision Consulting is working on a data-based system aimed at improving wave-prediction technology.
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Image (cropped): via Marine Power Systems.