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Waves run this power plant

Jan 2, 2001 msnbc

Oceans seen as powerful and profitable source of energy

Waves inside this bunker off the Scottish coast create air drafts, which turn blades inside the green turbine. The energy generated is sold to two utilities.

Hoping to ride a wave of success, a Scottish company is using the ocean to produce pollution-free power. Wavegen has created the world's first commercial wave power plant, and it's been producing enough electricity to light 400 homes. And with ocean power lapping the globe, the company hopes the technology will spread.

"WAVE POWER isn't exactly new, but what's changed since it was first researched during the 1970s energy crisis is that costs have come down to where it could be profitable, starting with remote areas where other sources of energy are hard to get.

"The technology used by Wavegen essentially works like this: A 25-yard-wide concrete bunker built on a shoreline has an underwater opening that allows water to slosh back and forth inside. The resulting air currents are strong enough to turn a turbine, which in turn generates electricity. It's the same concept as a dam that uses water to turn turbines, except in this case it's the air.

"You can even think of waves as a concentrated form of solar energy. That's because the winds that create waves are caused by pressure differences in the atmosphere, which in turn are caused by the heat coming from the sun.

"Environmentalists see great promise in wave energy as long as power plants aren't built along sensitive coastlines. The appeal is that wave power is produced without emitting smog or greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, thought by many scientists to be warming the Earth.


"The Scottish plant began producing power on Nov. 20. Located on the island of Islay, it's providing power to two local utilities under 15-year contracts. That power can then be fed into the regional power grid for distribution.

"The facility cost $1.6 million to build but our next power stations will be cheaper half the cost for the same output," said Wavegen managing director Allan Thomson.

"David Langston, Wavegen's business development manager, says the cost of power ranges between 4 to 8.5 cents per kilowatt/hour, competitive with costs for traditional sources of power.

"The strong winds blowing east across the Atlantic make Scotland one of the best places in the world to harness wave power, but Wavegen believes it can be developed along just about any coastal area.

"Whether it's practical in a given area, Langston says, depends on wind strength, the costs of labor and material, especially concrete to make the bunker, and the expense of connecting the plant to a power grid.

" "We are assessing a number of potential projects at the moment," he said. "We are very interested in developing projects in the USA."

"Ironically, the United States, despite its vast research network, is far removed from the current wave technology. The U.S. Energy Department hasn';t looked into it at all over the last 20 years.

"After drawing a blank himself, a U.S. Energy Department spokesman contacted two former wave researchers who said they did their work so long ago that they have no idea where the technology stands today.


Encouraged by a 1999 law promoting renewable energy, Scotland has become a hot bed for energy research, especially when it comes from the ocean.

"Edinburgh-based Ocean Power Delivery is designing its own wave energy converter to be tested on Islay in 2002.

"Environmental groups have strongly endorsed wave power and would like Britain and other countries to do more to support it.

"Wave power is at the stage wind power was at 10 years ago," Greenpeace campaigner Nick Milton said earlier this year. Today, wind power is a $1.6 billion-a-year industry.

"British Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to increase Britain's use of renewables from 2.6 percent of total energy at present to 10 percent by 2010. As part of that effort, Britain has resumed funding wave power research after a lapse of many years.

"According to a British government report, the cost of harnessing wave power has fallen by 10 times in the last 17 years, making it nearly commercially viable. The report also found that the British coastline has some of the strongest currents and waves in the world, making it an ideal place to exploit the resource.


The European Union is also showing an interest in wave power, having helped fund Wavegen's plant as well as a similar project in Portugal.

"The Islay device is a major breakthrough," said Tom Thorpe, who coordinates European Union research into wave energy. "It is the world's first commercial wave power system. They will also learn a lot from the system, that will help them to make the next one more cheaply and more efficient."

But Thorpe, addressing a wave energy conference in Denmark earlier this month, also urged researchers to do a better job sharing their work and spelled out what the technology needs to really take off.

"The priority for wave energy is to demonstrate the survivability and reliability of the first devices in order to overcome the credibility problems resulting from the early days of development," he said.

Philippe Schild, an EU science adviser, offered a similar view. "Any devices to use wave power have to survive the roughness of the sea," he said. "This is the biggest uncertainty for any concept."


Researchers are also looking at the possibility of offshore wave power plants. Wavegen tried such a project in 1995 but the structure was damaged before it could be lowered into the sea.

A new attempt will be made by Sea Power, a Swedish company, which plans to install a floating wave power “vessel” off the Shetland Islands in 2002.

But offshore plants are an even greater logistical challenge than onshore plants because they face stronger waves and high construction costs. In these types of plants, tides essentially are used to turn underwater blades or turbines.

Tides are also an area of interest to ocean energy researchers. A Canadian company, Blue Energy, is developing a generator with huge blades that works like an underwater windmill.

The big drawback to this technique, however, is that it blocks marine life and could even kill species migrating back and forth.


"In Norway, the government-run oil company, Statoil, is pondering a giant recycling idea: converting unwanted offshore oil platforms into giant waterwheels that create energy.

"Oil platforms in the deep waters off Norway include some of the world's tallest structures, and the cost of dismantling them as they become obsolete could run into billions of dollars.

Statoil's idea, still in very preliminary stages, would be to tow unneeded platforms to land, convert them to power plants and then tow them to areas with strong tidal currents.

"Those currents would turn a waterwheel, providing the power needed to generate electricity.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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