Australia Takes First Step to Harness Its Surging Seas for Energy

Wave energy can theoretically supply up to a third of Australia's energy needs, but whether the technology can succeed remains a question mark

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CETO pilot plant in Western Australia
CETO pilot plant in western Australia courtesy of Carnegie Wave Energy

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SYDNEY, AustraliaAustralia has begun drawing renewable energy from the forbidding waves that pound its abundant coastline, with the nation’s first marine power unit that began operation in April.

Developed by Perth-based Carnegie Wave Energy, the stand-alone demonstration piece called Ceto the name of a Greek sea goddess converts motion from the ocean into electricity  through a pump anchored 80 feet undersea off southwestern Australia’s coast. It can supply 100 kilowatts of energy, enough to power about 70 homes.

When the ocean waves swell, a high-tech buoy attached to the pump moves with them. The movement powers the machine, which pushes water along a pipeline that runs ashore and drives a hydraulic turbine that generates zero-carbon electricity. Carnegie is planning a farm of 10 to 15 Cetos that will yield roughly 2 megawatts.

Wave energy can theoretically supply up to one-third of Australia’s energy needs, according to the company, which invested about $30 million into its technology. But whether widespread adoption will ever be practical is another question.

“It sounds possible,” said Friends of the Earth Australia campaigner Cam Walker. “Carnegie is focusing on the southern ocean, which is one of the world’s largest and most consistent wave energy resources.” Its attempt to commercialize the technology “will hopefully show exactly what is possible,” he added.

Tim Buckley, a spokesman for the Australian clean energy fund Arkx, described Carnegie’s prototype as “world leading.” Still, it needs more research funding, development and testing to enable refinement, he said.

As happened with solar power and wind power, the manufacturing process will need to be “scaled-up,” Buckley told SolveClimate News. The investment required is “massive,” he said, adding that large-scale production should drive down costs.

In the meantime, Australia’s state governments have stamped plenty of permits for small-scale demonstration wave power projects.

Recipients include OPT and AquaGen in Australia’s smallest mainland state, Victoria; Waverider in South Australia; and Oceanlinx in the home of Sydney, New South Wales. Wave power prototypes are also being tested by several countries including the United States, Scotland, France, England, Germany and Korea.

Pike Research, a clean technology research group, says that if ocean energy and tidal stream trial projects succeed in the next few years the industry could supply as much as 200 gigawatts of power by 2025, about ten times the current amount of installed solar photovoltaics. A new report by the Carbon Trust, a UK government think tank, says the sector would need at least until 2050 to hit that target.

The UK became a global test center for marine energy with its 20-megawatt Wave Hub facility, which began feeding power to the grid in November. “The UK and Ireland are doing great things in this area,” said John O’Brien, the managing director of the sustainability hub Australian CleanTech.

“Korea is also moving fast on tidal energy, as it has huge tidal ranges on its west coast,” he said. Asia’s fourth-largest economy poured 80 percent of its $38 billion stimulus program into “green growth,” and later it committed 2 percent of its annual GDP over five years to the same national cause.

Controversy Expected

Still, wave power looks likely to be controversial. In Australia, the possibility that Carnegie’s wave project may pose a threat to the environment has fueled “considerable debate,” Buckley said, though there have been no organized protests against its deployment. 

A possible future obstacle, he said, is public resistance to swathes of ocean being fenced off by wave farms.

“When we get to this, it may cause some friction and a repeat of the NIMBY [Not In My Backyard] debate regarding wind farms.” The other issue, which also dogs wind farms, is “aesthetic pollution.” The visibility of any exposed floating parts from ashore can thwart acceptance.

Environmentalists in several countries testing ocean energy technologies have raised concerns that wave energy farms could harm fish. Surfing and tourism industries in the UK have urged officials to consider the impact on surfers in their planning.

Buckley, who works on behalf of cleantech investors, questioned whether such concerns are warranted, given that low-carbon energy solutions must be found amid concerns about climate change and pollution caused by burning fossil fuels. Yearly, coal-fired power stations in Australia release 200 million tons of carbon into the Australian air.

He cited the estuary tidal power plant on the Weser near Bremen in northwestern Germany, which has been running since 1911, as an example of low-impact tidal machines. The electric turbines are spaced to let fish swim between them — or bypass the turbine entirely through a “fish ladder,” a series of ascending pools, similar to a staircase, which enables fish to go upriver.

Location, Location, Location…

Because 80 percent of Australians live 30 miles from the coastline, wave power “lends itself” toward being a top clean energy solution, O’Brien said, possibly surmounting high costs of distribution and grid connection facing other power sources. He added that marine energy also has the benefit of consistency. With storage, wave power can provide 24-hour baseload energy.

The question is whether wave power “will be rolled out quick enough to grab its opportunity,” he said. By the time it is ready for prime time, the price of solar will have fallen so far that it could take over, he forecast.

For now, the key technical challenge for wave power is ensuring longevity and reliability of equipment submerged and exposed to the extreme forces that storms can unleash.

“These problems are possible to overcome, but it can be expensive and time-consuming to get it right,” O’Brien said.

Where’s the Money?

He added that wave power projects are still too costly to win funding they need from venture capitalists, and the Australian government only offers “intermittent and inconsistent” support for the energy source.

Fossil fuels, which produce about 90 percent of Australia’s electricity, still draw the bulk of Australian public research funding. “Renewables get very little,” said Walker of Greenpeace. New energy development is skewed toward expanding our use of fossil fuels, he said, especially crude oil and shale oil.

Renewable energies comprise about 10 percent of the nation’s electricity supply, with most of that coming from hydroelectric plants. In 2009, the country passed a national renewable energy target requiring utilities to get 20 percent of their power from cleaner sources by 2020. The policy has been criticized for not applying to the nearly 80 percent of the country’s fossil fuel production that gets exported.

For wave power to rise beyond the realm of research, it needs “a comprehensive policy framework,” Walker said. This would require federal government action, he said, adding that wave energy is “well off the radar” for many renewable energy investors, which further dents its chances of going mainstream.

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