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CWE on the ABC - A great read

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    This is a great read

    The worlds oceans are heaving with untapped energy. So why haven't we worked out how to harness it yet?
    EVERY MINUTE AROUND Australia, hundreds of megawatts of renewable energy smash, untapped, against the country's shores.
    Wave energy is one of the most powerful, consistent and promising sources of renewable power scientists are aware of. The World Energy Council estimated in 1993 that the world's oceans contain two terrawatts of energy — enough energy to generate roughly double the current world electricity production.
    Australia in particular is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the resource with 35,876 km of coastline, a largely coastal population, and powerful waves. In 2012, a CSIRO report predicted that by 2050, wave energy converters will be able to affordably produce around 11 per cent of the country's electricity.
    But the potential is much larger. In theory, the waves in our southern oceans alone could power the whole country five times over.
    However, despite a boom of interest in wave energy during the oil crisis of the '70s, the technology has largely lagged behind other renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind. In fact, we still have no idea what a commercial wave energy converter will look like.
    "New energy technologies take a long time to progress from the lab to maturity, and wave energy is no different," says Russell Marsh, the policy director of the Clean Energy Council. "Different wave energy technologies across the world are currently competing to be the most effective and least expensive, but it will be years from now before this is resolved."
    At least 20 high-profile converters have been floated to the prototype stage around the world — including designs based on seaweed, giant surfing snakes and huge floating power stations — but a clear front-runner hasn't emerged as yet.
    In fact, Dr Michael Ottaviano, the managing director of Carnegie Wave Energy — which has successfully installed a wave energy prototype off the coast of Perth — believes wave energy is currently in the same stage of development that wind energy was 30 years ago. "There's a lot of ideas out there, but most will fail as the industry matures, leaving just a couple of winners," he says.
    So why has progress been so slow when the science surrounding wave energy is relatively straightforward? It all comes down to one unfortunate fact: harnessing wave energy is really expensive, says Ottaviano.
    While all emerging technologies are costly, wave is more expensive than land-based options precisely because it's in the ocean. This means that it needs to be able to withstand corrosion and a lack of regular maintenance, colonisation by sea creatures, and the destructive power of waves, which can, ironically, carry too much energy.
    Interestingly, most designs are already efficient enough to capture huge amounts of electricity — some can harvest up to 90 per cent of a wave's power — but developing them and testing them in the field is extremely costly.
    "The key thing that has to be done to make wave energy a competitive renewable energy source is for a company to demonstrate to investors that it can deliver power over commercially viable periods of time. And that hasn't been achieved in Australia as yet," says Dr Peter Osman, a researcher from CSIRO's Energy Transformed Flagship who worked on the 2012 report. "But the hardest part is just getting enough funding to get to that stage."
    Ottaviano agrees. "The big thing that's held wave energy back is that it's a capital-intensive process and it takes time. And those are the two things that investors don't like," he explains. "Add in risk and it makes investors very unwilling, despite the potentially huge prize," Ottaviano says.
    Unfortunately, there is plenty of risk, and it's been very well publicised.
    In 2010, a world-first $5 million floating converter built by local company Oceanlinx broke free of its moorings off the coast of Port Kembla in New South Wales and smashed up on the shore, where the wreckage still remains. In 2012, the company prepared to test a new prototype off the coast of South Australia, but it sank on the way to the test site, sending Oceanlinx bankrupt.
    Another local company, Ocean Power Technologies Australia (OPTA), also made headlines last year when it announced it was pulling out of operations in Australia — just a few months after it was given a $66.5 million grant from the Australian Renewable Energy National Agency (ARENA) and funding from technology giant Lockheed Martin to build the "world's biggest trial wave farm" off the coast of Victoria. Before a buoy had even entered the water, the company concluded the project was too ambitious and gave the money back.
    And funding isn't only a challenge in Australia. Arguably one of the most successful wave energy companies in the world, Pelamis, whose snake-like converter was being tested off the coast of Scotland, went into administration in 2014, after not being able to raise sufficient funds to continue the project.
    "That's a real challenge when you're in wave energy — your competitors have large, spectacular failures," says Ottaviano.
    Carnegie's demonstration video

    But Carnegie may be about to cross the commercial demonstration hurdle for the first time in Australia in the coming weeks, when, if all goes to plan, it will begin feeding electricity into the grid. Its $45-million prototype is called CETO 5, and was installed off the coast of Perth at the end of last year. The biggest point of difference is that CETO 5 is fully submerged — it sits on the ocean floor looking sort of like an underwater punching bag. This means that it misses out on a little efficiency, as the majority of a wave's energy is at the surface, but it also means that it's protected from a lot of intense storm damage.
    This is an approach many companies are now taking after the foundering of floating models around the world, and it seems to be working. Carnegie announced before Christmas that it has already safely operated for more than 700 hours in swells of up to four metres. Their device also acts as a small desalination plant and is now ready to begin providing electricity and fresh water to the Garden Island Navy Base in the coming weeks — a service the Australian Navy will be paying for.
    "The next two years will be very exciting," says Osman. "Carnegie is getting ready to cross that barrier and potentially demonstrate to investors that they can affordably produce electricity. Australia is doing quite well per capita — we now have two main projects that show outstanding promise."
    BioPower's demonstration video

    The other converter about to begin ocean testing is the bioWAVE, created by BioPower Systems. Their researchers have built a device inspired by kelp, which is anchored to the ocean floor like a field of seaweed, where it languidly sways with the motion of waves. Their first prototypes will be installed this year off the coast of Port Fairy in Victoria, the BioPower Systems CEO, Dr Timothy Finnigan says.
    "We were looking at a way to harness energy that wouldn't work against the forces of the ocean or try to brace itself against those larger wave forces, and decided to look to nature," says Finnigan.
    But he accepts that the industry is still a long way off achieving its potential. Once a technology proves itself, energy companies still need to go through the environmental and efficiency testing, and scaling up; steps that other renewable energies have already passed.
    "I don't think wave power is on the decline, but the hype has definitely worn off, people have realised it's hard. Now we're just settling in for the gestation period," Finnigan adds.
    But the results may be worth the hardship. With 70 per cent of the Earth's surface covered in ocean, whoever manages to demonstrate the first commercially successful wave energy device will undoubtedly be able to license it around the world and will help provide the planet with a much-needed weather independent renewable energy source.
    "Wave energy has gone beyond proof of concept," says Osman. "We're close to getting to the phase where we can prove to investors and governments that the technology can generate reliable and affordable energy. And that's when the industry can really take off."
    "With 70 per cent of the Earth's surface covered in ocean, whoever manages to demonstrate the first commercially successful wave energy device will undoubtedly be able to license it around the world" which would of course provide jobs and much needed export income for any nation wise and prudent enough to support the development of such an industry on behalf of the population that will direct benefit from jobs and an enriched economy (with due taxation being reaped).
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