Powerful potential if conditions were right to harness it

The burgeoning wave and tidal energy industry is awash with government money for research. However, many enthusiastic proponents believe it is being spent in all the wrong places

Concepts for utilising wave power: floating bodies, buoys, oscillating shutters or tidal power plants Concepts for utilising wave power: floating bodies, buoys, oscillating shutters or tidal power plants. From top left: Dr Patrick Walsh from the department of mechanical and automobile engineering in Limerick; former minister for energy and natural resources Pat Rabbitte; and Conor Haughey, chairman of the Irish Wave Energy Developer’s Association

Concepts for utilising wave power: floating bodies, buoys, oscillating shutters or tidal power plants Concepts for utilising wave power: floating bodies, buoys, oscillating shutters or tidal power plants. From top left: Dr Patrick Walsh from the department of mechanical and automobile engineering in Limerick; former minister for energy and natural resources Pat Rabbitte; and Conor Haughey, chairman of the Irish Wave Energy Developer’s Association

 

We used to be considered the edge of the world. A scary place. Now our position on the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean is a status symbol. At every scientist’s cocktail party you go to these days, one is bored to death by conversations about the energy production opportunities our location on the Atlantic – with all those gale force winds – affords us Gaels. Now it’s simply a question of grabbing that energy by the proverbials and, by extension, sending Shell, Statoil and every other fossil fuel peddler back to the 20th century. Isn’t it?

According to the Marine Renewables Industry Association (MRIA), the wave energy resources available to Ireland could potentially meet 75 per cent of our electricity requirements. Sounds optimistic but someone must believe them. In 2013, then minister for energy, communications and the marine, Pat Rabbitte, announced that over the following three years a budget of €26.3 million would be made available through the Ocean Renewable Energy Development Plan. A further €19 million would be granted to Marine Renewable Energy Ireland (MaREI) to employ 135 researchers. He even threw €30 million into a prototype development fund.

So there’s plenty of money floating around. However, at this point many feel real progress has been exceptionally slow with no actual full-scale prototypes anywhere to be seen off the Irish coast. Given the cost of research into this area, it’s a gamble to use taxpayers’ money for building full-scale wave and tidal energy production models only to find they are not going to work.

No guarantee

SwedenScotland

“It is all moving very slowly here,” says Dr Patrick Walsh from the department of mechanical and automobile engineering in Limerick IT and member of the Irish Wave Energy Developer’s Association (IWEDA), a group of 11 small enterprises – each with its own wave and tidal energy research models ready to be tested – with one thing in common: no access to any of the money floating around. “There’s no shortage of Government money available in the exploration of ocean energy, but most of it is being spent on infrastructure, test sites, and academic research,” says Conor Haughey, chairman of IWEDA.

Grant

ESBJimmy MurphyResearch Institute

It’s one of those industries where upscaling is not an incremental process. You go from small fry to the big time or not at all. Of course the big time is only made possible through massive amounts of capital investment. There’s no shortage of enthusiasm among Irish wave and tidal energy innovators, but at this point, none has been given the capital needed to take it to the next level.

Walsh’s company, Limerick Wave, is using a mechanical system to harness wave power, rather than the hydraulic, pneumatic, or linear motor systems usually tested. “We have taken the up and down motion of the waves, and directed it one way,” he says. “In other words, we’ve got both clockwise and anti-clockwise working together. Once it’s going in one direction it’s ideal for turning a generator.”

In this aqua-field, there’s a series of technology readiness levels. “Our device is at Level 4,” says Walsh. “Ultimately we need to be at Level 9.”

This year they aim to move to Level 7 and put a quarter-scale unit in Galway Bay. If that worked they would have the confidence to go full scale. But they need money to do it. “We have approached Enterprise Ireland but they aren’t really in a position to help, as we’re too far from the market at this time. SEAI has helped us with our grant and the Ballyhoura Leader Board have also been very helpful as well. But a lot more is needed. The generator we’ve developed to work on the wave has myriad of other applications. If you give us movement, well give you energy.”

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