jueves, marzo 15, 2007

UK: Wave energy set to turn the tide

by Brian Milligan

"I wouldn't open the door just now," says Jacob Ahlqvist, as a hailstorm drums on the roof of a steel hut at Lyness on the Island of Hoy.

Mr Ahlqvist works for Ocean Power Delivery, and at anchor close by is the company's prototype wave energy device, known as Pelamis. Such developments could be the future, delegates at a key wave and tidal power conference in London are being told this week. And they are told that marine energy needs more financial support to help the industry get established as quickly as possible. Some 520 miles north, on the Orkney Islands, the Ocean Power Delivery team of wave energy pioneers couldn't agree more.

This is the site for the world's biggest wave farm so far, and in this harsh environment they need all the help they can get.

Viable technology
Otherwise known as "the snake", Pelamis consists of four 40 metres long steel tubes, which float on the surface of the sea.

The action of the waves makes each section flex against the next one.
Hydraulic rams drive fluid, which then drives generators powerful enough to supply 500 homes each. Even though the technology is still in development, three Pelamis devices have already been sold to a company in Portugal.

And by the middle of next year, four Pelamis devices will be installed near here to form Britain's first wave farm.

Richard Yemm, chief executive and founder of Ocean Power Delivery, is brimming with enthusiasm, even though he has had no sleep overnight in order to reach the Orkney Isles.

"We're on the cusp," he says.

"The next four years will be critical, but it is a viable technology."

The answer is blowing in the wind

Viable it may be, but as yet not everyone is convinced that it is competitive.
At the moment it is twice as expensive to produce an hour's worth of electricity using wave power than to do the same thing with wind power.

But Mr Yemm says that is only because the technology is still at an early stage.

"We're currently at about half the cost of wind when it started, so far from being expensive, we're actually very cheap," he says, promising that within five to 10 years wave power will be as cheap as wind power.

Plenty of sea
Standing on the cliffs at Billia Croo, on Orkney's mainland, you can see his point.

Here the islands are exposed to the full force of Atlantic waves.

And it is here where the wave farm should be up and running by the middle of next year, powering 2,000 homes, or about 10% of Orkney's population. Neil Kermode, of the European Marine Energy Centre, or Emec, is inspecting the switchgear that is already installed at the top of the beach.
He too is enthusiastic.

"There's a lot of sea out there," he says.

"This is going to be a technology that could power northern Scotland."

Eventually he believes wave power could supply 20% of the UK's energy needs, the same proportion currently supplied by nuclear.

Such suggestions are not entirely wishful thinking.

After all, Scotland already has 18% of its energy needs supplied by clean sources, including hydro power, three years ahead of schedule.

The UK as a whole, though, lags far behind.
According to the Department of Trade and Industry, the UK currently gets just 5% of its energy from renewable sources, even though the government is still "hopeful" of hitting the 10% target by 2010.

The British Wind Energy Association, organiser of the ongoing conference in London, now wants to see the renewables obligation extended.

That would force power companies to take more of their supply from green energy sources, like wave and tidal power.

That, in turn, would give companies like Ocean Power Delivery the necessary investment to develop the technology further.

On the island of Hoy they are not used to rapid change.

But with the urgency that is a feature of the climate-change generation, the tide might just be turning.

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