Catching the power of the waves

A RECENT visit to the magnificent Dingle Peninsula, on a day when there was a heavy swell in the Atlantic, illustrated yet again the sheer power of the waves that crashed into the jagged coastline.

So dramatic was the spectacle at Inch that we felt compelled, along with a number of tourists who happened to be there, to stop and view the scene from a layby, close to where the waves had undermined the road some years ago.

A few miles across the bay, at Rossbeigh, the power of the sea could again be seen in the form of a new island created by the storm-tossed seas.

All of which us brings us to the question: why not harness the ocean to create electricity? The development of ocean energy is still in its infancy in Ireland, but we have a distinct advantage in this area over many other European countries – wave power along our west coast is stronger than theirs. For that reason, we are going to hear a lot more about the development of energy from waves. The Ocean Energy Development Unit (OEDU) of Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI) has just deployed a weather buoy off the north Mayo coast to monitor wave and weather conditions.

Located 10km off Annagh Head, in the Mullet Peninsula, it was launched last week and will transmit the information it collects via satellite link to the OEDU at the civic offices in Belmullet.

Crucially, this information is the first of its kind available in Ireland and will facilitate the development of a full-scale wave energy test site off the Mayo coast. According to SEI chief executive Professor Owen Lewis, Ireland has the potential to become a world leader in supplying wave energy technologies internationally and in generating electricity from our abundant waves. As he sees it, the establishment of a wave energy test site is a vital step to reach this ambition.

“We must harness the potential of ocean energy off our extended coastline, not only to reduce carbon dioxide emissions but also to reduce our reliance on imported fossil fuels,” he said.

The wave energy buoys are capable of measuring the shape and height of every wave crossing a specified point.

In another significant development, Ocean Energy, a specialised commercial company developing wave energy technology based in Cobh, Co Cork, has signed a major deal with Dresser-Rand, a global supplier of high-speed rotating equipment. The agreement is expected to boost the growth wave energy in Ireland and Ocean Energy chief executive John McCarthy is confident the deal will lead to the creation of thousands of jobs here.

Established in 2000, Ocean Energy currently employs six people and, in November, began its first funding round, hoping to raise €20 million. It has already received €700,000 from Sustainable Energy Ireland.

In August, the company successfully completed more than two and half years of testing on its ocean energy buoy technology, off the Galway coast, and says it is now at the stage where it’s the most commercially viable technology for harnessing the power of the oceans.

US multinational Dresser-Rand currently employs more than 6,000 staff worldwide and is among the largest suppliers of rotating equipment solutions to the global oil, gas and petrochemical industries.

Not everyone, however, is as upbeat about progress in developing wave energy. For example, an energy audit in Co Mayo, last year, found it will not develop significantly in Ireland for at least a decade, due to investment difficulties and the “unproven nature” of the technology. The study by the Sustainability Institute, headed by former Green Party member Andy Wilson, said investors were pulling out of renewable energy projects, blaming the global recession and world energy prices.

All this despite the fact that north Mayo is the location for the government’s full-scale trials on wave energy – part of a €26 million ocean energy programme, which is central to the Government’s aim to provide 40% of energy from renewable sources by 2020. The question is: is Ireland capitalising on its natural advantage, including latitude, weather, and Atlantic location, not to mention our over-reliance on fossil fuel to generate electricity? However, former US ambassador to Ireland, Thomas Foley, criticised the slow pace of development in wave energy here, last year, warning that US investment would be lost.

In their audit, Mr Wilson and fellow author Paul Lynch maintained ocean energy technology will not contribute significantly to energy security in the short or even medium term as investors are withdrawing and technology development is still at an early stage.

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