Ireland's Wave Energy Opportunity
The ocean is Ireland’s greatest energy resource. I was reminded of this when I visited the Galway Bay Marine and Renewable Energy Test Site recently, traversing the waves on board the Kerry Head. I was out on Galway Bay to view the quarter-scale Sea Power Wave Energy Convertor for the first time since it was deployed on the site in early November of this year.
Ireland’s location at the westernmost edge of Europe places us at the receiving end of a vast transmission line of energy, with waves generated across the expanses of the Atlantic Ocean converging on our shores. The energy that could potentially be captured from this resource well exceeds our current electricity requirements. The economic benefits that would be derived from utilising this resource are also considerable; Ireland’s Offshore Renewable Energy Development Plan indicates that a fully developed ocean energy sector in Ireland would deliver many thousands of jobs to our economy. So, we have an abundant resource and persuasive economic arguments for harnessing it. Why then does ocean energy not currently play a part in our energy mix?
Watching the Sea Power device in action brought home some of the challenges that face the developers of these ocean energy technologies. Though the day was relatively calm, and the test site naturally sheltered, every so often a set of several larger waves appeared, causing the device to pitch more abruptly and straining the mooring lines. As they move further offshore wave energy projects will face incredibly harsh operating environments. Their devices must be designed to withstand extreme conditions throughout their lifetimes, like the series of storms Ireland experienced last winter, and they must be able to operate consistently with minimal maintenance and intervention throughout the year.
Proving survivability and reliability is critical for developing wave energy devices. To address this, we are putting a world-class suite of test facilities in place in Ireland for demonstrating that these technologies can meet the ocean’s myriad challenges. Galway Bay allows companies to take their first steps in the ocean and gain real sea operating experience, while simultaneously avoiding the huge cost of building a full-scale device. Before devices are ready for deployment in Galway they can be studied and optimised in the more controlled settings of the Lir National Ocean Test Facility at University College Cork. Lir is located in the new Beaufort Building, and houses wave tanks, a flow flume and mechanical and electrical test rigs for component development. The final piece in this jigsaw, the Atlantic Marine Energy Test Site off the coast of Belmullet, Co Mayo, is currently being developed by SEAI. When complete, it will afford wave energy devices and supporting components that have graduated from Galway Bay the opportunity to be tested in some of the harshest seas experienced anywhere in the world.
The performance and cost of ocean energy systems also need to be improved to make them economically viable when compared with other sources of renewable energy. This will require a continued focus on R&D activities. Sea Power is a small Irish company and the launch of their quarter-scale device is the result of eight years of design, testing and improvement. The project has been supported with a grant of over €1m funding through SEAI’s Ocean Energy Prototype Development fund. This programme is specifically targeted at industry-led R&D, and it has supported 42 projects over the past two years. These projects include early stage proof of concept work, including numerical modelling and laboratory tests but, increasingly, we are seeing progress to more substantial demonstrations, like Sea Power. It is from this pool of innovation that we hope to see technologies that reach commercial roll-out emerge.
The ocean energy sector has gone through its share of peaks and troughs, but while the waves continue to break on our shores, it will always present an enticing opportunity to be harnessed. Visiting the Sea Power device reminded me of the exciting and encouraging steps being taken in Ireland to advance novel technologies and develop the test facilities required to support this progression. Despite its challenges, ocean energy remains a real opportunity to deliver economic and societal benefits for the citizens of Ireland.