A new wave in energy production

The first commercial wave farm is about to open off the coast of Italy next month. The farm will use a unique approach that doesn’t depend on the heavy swells previously targeted by prototype wave energy installations, instead it is aiming to harness the more gentle surf along coasts previously thought not to be viable.

Until now wave energy companies have tended to focus on the roughest seas, such as the wild waters off the coasts of Scotland. But Michele Grassi, founder of London-based wave energy company 40South Energy, says attempting to harness the power of wild seas is uneconomic as it means having to build expensive, bulky platforms which can survive powerful storms. In contrast, 40South’s wave harnessing machine is much more affordable. The reason it can cut costs is because it has been designed to dodge extreme conditions by hiding beneath rough water.

Despite advances in research the much heralded prospect of wave energy has proved difficult to implement commercially. In 2008, the very first commercial plant, situated off the coast of Portugal. opened. It was based on a system by Pelamis of Edinburgh. The plant opened to great fanfare however,  the ill-fated project was abandoned a mere two months later due to both technical and financial problems.

This 19th of June,  40South will install a 150-kilowatt module outside Livorno Port in Tuscany hopefully with much better results. Their groundbreaking machine utilizes two connected buoyant sections that sit above each other at different depths, the lower one is moored to the seabed. The arms that connect them move inside each other in a piston-like way, this movement generates power using electric dynamos. The whole structure cleverly sits below the surface of the water, where lower amounts of wave energy can still be captured. Most importantly, the structure can automatically adjust its vertical position in the water depending on the conditions, during large, potentially damaging storms it can safely sink out of harm’s way.

This ability also helps it produce consistent levels of power, the steady power it produces gives it a  big advantage, says Hugo Chandler of London-based energy consultancy New Resource Partners, whose work focuses on integrating renewable power into the grid. “Something more stable is much less frightening for the grid operator,” he says. “They’re going to get a cheaper grid connection.”

Wave energy researcher Ted Brekken at Oregon State University in Corvallis says it was natural for wave energy companies to initially try to harness the most powerful waves possible, but pursuing the most energetic waves at any cost doesn’t necessarily make sense. “How much it costs to make, maintain and deploy the device is very significant for wave energy,” says Brekken. This seems to be the way forward. Indeed, Pelamis , currently constructing the world’s biggest wave farm in Scottish waters, claims its latest design, called the P2, costs less than its predecessor and is simpler to build.

Italy‘s largest power company, Enel, bought the Livorno Port unit from 40South last year, and has an agreement to buy more if all goes to plan, as part of a five-year partnership. Carlo Papa, chief innovation officer of Enel subsidiary, Enel Green Power, says the firm spent months on the lookout for marine energy technologies that were safe and easy to manage, and which had no impact on the existing marine environment. “We’ve seen a lot of the machines that are out there,” Papa says. “40South weren’t lucky, they were good.”

Sources include The New Scientist

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