EDINBURGH, U.K. -- Wave and tidal makers are going to have to start to agree on the basics for the industry to take off.
Although researchers have demonstrated that it's possible to extract energy from waves and tides, the industry probably won't start to gain momentum until manufacturers converge on one or two standard designs for machines. A few basic designs will also let utilities better evaluate and test the potential of wave power as well as erode the cost of making them.
"We're not made a commercial device yet," said Ian Bryden, professor of renewable energy at the University of Edinburgh, who analogizes the current situation to the early days of aeronautics. "They had biplanes, triplanes. It took a long time to evolve."
Max Carcas, business development director at Edinburgh-based Pelamis Wave Power, agrees and says his company is considering ways to license the design and some of the technology behind its now familiar snake-like wave device as a way to promote standards.
Now, it's a bit early. Pelamis only installed what it says are the first three commercial-scale wave devices last year. (Pelamis makes those red 120-meter long sea snakes.) The devices, off the coast of Portugal, are capable of generating 750 kilowatts each. The company will soon begin work on a prototype for the utility E.ON.
But in the future you could see other companies making devices based on the Pelamis intellectual property, he said. Carcas also added that standardization is already creeping into the industry: Pelamis is built around standard components.
The Saltire Prize will likely help drive standardization, added Allan MacAskill, business development director for SeaEnergy Renewables, which wants to build and operate wind turbines that are built on the same kind of platforms used by oil drillers (see When Oil Rig Met Wind Turbine). Announced in December, the Scottish government will give £10 million ($14 million U.S.) to a group that can build a wave or tidal device that puts out 100 gigawatt hours of power over a two year period.
SeaEnergy wants to build wave farms, but will probably hold off until conformity is clearer.
"You know what a wind turbine looks like. It's a big tower with three blades. We don't really know what [wind and tidal devices] will look like until we get one that works," he said.
It's tough to find a more authoritative voice than Bryden, who has been studying wave power since the 1970s. He worked with professor Stephen Salter, who demonstrated the first wave device (the Duck) at the university in 1974. When Margaret Thatcher ordered universities to halt work on marine power research, Bryden amended the department's charter to include research on coastal defense to keep it going.
"She basically ended the development overnight," he said.
When university officials ordered the group to demolish the 1970s wave tank, Bryden and graduate students saved the paddles, motors and other parts so they could build another. Those motors and paddles are being used in the lab's current tank. (See photo.)
The situation has been improving. Venture capitalists and government are cautiously funding marine power projects. The University of Edinburgh will actually demolish its current wave tank to make way for a circular tank that can test both waves and tides. Large scale demonstrations are also underway. Ireland's Open Hydro, for instance, has a 250 kilowatt tidal device – it looks like a large kitchen fan with a hole in the middle – at EMEC's testing center in the Orkneys.
Carcas, among others, estimated that economically harvest-able wave and tidal power could produce 50 to 80 terawatt hours of power for the U.K. a year, or 25 percent of total demand.
"That's equivalent to nuclear power in the U.K.," Carcas said. The Pentland Firth, a body of water at the north of Scotland, could provide 9 gigawatts of tidal power.
Nonetheless, basic research still needs to be conducted in how waves and tides actually behave. Computer simulations only became adequate in 2006, said Bryden. Edinburgh actually has to use the same computers as other researchers looking at the Big Bang.
"We have more variables than them," he said. "You almost have to model every element of water."
And to date, most research and trials have been conducted on individual devices. Research has to be conducted on how to design arrays for optimal performance and minimizing environmental impact. Although seals and fish are often held up as the potential victims, a bigger worry may lay in how these systems impact algae and krill. Carcas further added that economics will always weigh heavily on these companies. There will likely be no Prius effect.
"Energy is just a commodity," he said. "People will pay top price for an iPhone, but it's just a phone. You don't really invite your friends home and say ‘Do you see the quality of my electricity. It is produced by artisan wave engineers from the North of Scotland.' "