Aquamarine Power Oyster 800

Policy makers look to the seas to solve our energy trilemma

Last week Irish energy minister Alex White joined a legion of European policy makers, technology companies and other energy ministers in Croke Park for a landmark European conference on ocean energy.

The Ocean Energy Europe conference, sponsored by SEAI, took place over two days with over 500 delegates from around the world.

So why all the interest in ocean energy, and why Dublin?

Well, although our oceans are not yet a major source of electrical power, a lot of wise heads are predicting they will be in the decades to come. And Ireland could have a major role to play.

Ireland, in common with much of the rest of Europe, is a net importer of energy. Overall, Europe spends around €1 billion per day on global warming fossil fuels – much of it from Russia and the Middle East.

Together these three factors – cost, security of supply and carbon emissions – are known as the ‘energy trilemma’: how does Europe, with finite natural resources, meet an ever-increasing demand for affordable energy, and at the same time halt the rise in climate change?

According to the EU’s Energy Security Strategy, renewable energy offers a large part of the answer. In the last decade, we have seen a massive upsurge in green power technologies. Onshore wind farms and solar panels have now joined hydro power as an accepted part of the energy mix; and as deployment has gone up, reliability has increased and costs have come down. On a level playing field, onshore wind is now as cheap as gas.

Offshore wind is now making a significant contribution too, particularly in the shallow waters of the North Sea, but even these massive structures, with blades dwarfing a jumbo jet, will fail to slake Europe’s insatiable thirst for home-grown power.

So now forward thinkers are looking to the far horizon – to 2050 and beyond – to explore how we can pioneer new sources of green power.

Which brings us to Dublin. Our oceans are the world’s last great untapped source of renewable energy. It is estimated that Europe alone has 270 gigawatts of exploitable wave and tidal energy – equivalent to more than a thousand conventional power stations. The vast majority of this energy comes as waves, and which country has Europe’s biggest wave energy resource? Yes it is Ireland, with more than 17GW of potential power along its wild west coast.

Technology challenge

However, it is all very well to know the energy is there – it is turning it into electricity that is the hard part. How do we, as technology developers, turn good ideas into working technologies?

Well, it is not easy, and in the short term it is not cheap. At Aquamarine Power we have succeeded in installing and operating two full-scale Oyster wave energy machines at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney. We know our technology works, but the challenge is making it work reliably and, ultimately, at an affordable cost.

We are not alone – a number of leading wave and tidal technology companies have reached a similar point – and a crucial part of the solution lies is long-term political support. No new great endeavour, from the Apollo moon shots to the European Airbus can take off without government backing.

The great news is that Ireland is now putting the measures in place to make it a leader in the years ahead. The government has already published an Ocean Renewable Energy Development Plan, and is backing this up with the implementation of supportive tariffs, R&D grants and a foreshore leasing and consenting process for future wave energy farms – after all, there is no point in building a new technology if there is nowhere to put them.

These measures are vital – and when Ireland allies its amazing wave energy resource with a comprehensive and cohesive policy framework, the world could be its oyster.

However we must stay grounded. This decade, the focus has to be on research and development to build technologies that really do work, and my view is that collaboration will be key. We must share the lessons we have learned – as companies and as countries – if we are to progress.

This is already starting to happen – last month Maynooth University and Aquamarine Power secured an €800,000 EU grant to optimise the Oyster design, and future European grant calls will emphasise the need to work in concert.

The size of the prize is great. The European Commission estimates that ocean energy will deliver 20,000 highly skilled new jobs in Europe by 2035. It is an area they call ‘blue growth’, where new industries help support coastal communities at present dependent on other declining sectors.

This is not just aspiration. In Orkney – remote islands to the north of the Scottish mainland – Aquamarine Power has built strong working relationships with over 40 local firms – from diving contractors to local construction firms, and has spent directly more than €4 million in the local economy.

The parallels with other technologies are strong. In the early 1980s a Danish agricultural gearbox firm decided to diversify into what was then a very niche market – wind turbines. Fast forward 30 years and that firm, Vestas, is a multi-€billion concern and Denmark is a global leader in wind technology.

The EU delegates in Dublin could clearly see the potential offered by ocean energy in the decades ahead. Ireland, with a supportive government, amazing wave resource and, let’s not forget, a very strong hand in research, has it all to play for.