Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr William Dick, Wavebob Limited

  This response is limited to ocean wave energy. The opinions expressed are personal.

Background , the Wavebob

  What follows is in part based on the findings from ongoing research and development of the Wavebob. That work, which started in 1997, is now well advanced but is by no means complete. The Wavebob is an Irish invention and the IPR is now owned by Wavebob Limited, an independent private limited company registered in Dublin. The shareholders include Forrest Renewables Limited, a UK-registered company with Norwegian associations, the Irish Government through the Marine Institute, and the inventor, William Dick.

  The R&D has necessarily and usefully included a strong element of participation by UK institutions and companies, as well as Irish, Norwegian and Greek inputs. The project has been granted Eureka status. It is now probable that, if successful, much of the future development, fabrication and servicing will be based in Belfast.

The opportunity

  It is now well known that one of the most energetic ocean wave energy climates in the World is that off the North Western coast of Europe, and especially in the winter. It is also known that the size of this resource in deep water (say 100 metres) is immense and it is, in human terms, eternal. If significant amounts of ocean wave energy are to be exploited then the preferred technology must be capable of sustained and cost-efficient operation in a very demanding offshore environment.

  The relevant "knowledge base" has been greatly enhances since the '70s in two essential areas, each including a host of related topics:

    —  the theory of ocean wave energy conversion (started as university courses in 1973 by Salter in Edinburgh, Budal in Trondheim);

    —  the technology demanded by offshore operations (the DTI has recognised the scope for technology transfer from the oil and gas industries).

Design criteria

  We intentionally set out to design a device to work in deep water and in large arrays. It should float (ie not required rigid attachment to the seabed, and be independent of tidal range). It should accept wave energy from any direction. The power take-off should use proven components, ideally hydraulics. It should be as efficient as possible, ie deliver power at prices at least comparable to onshore wind turbines. It must be seaworthy,—the 100-year "design wave" off the west coast of Ireland is 35 metres. It should be easily fabricated, accessible from the surface, designed for shore-based maintenance, have in-built redundancy. In effect, the preferred device would be a class known as self-reacting point absorbers.

  The prime objective, unlike that adopted in many previous solutions, has been to recover power in useful quantities at low cost, rather than to strive to recover as much of the incident power as possible.

Responses to the issues listed by the Committee

  Please note that these comments are personal ones and not necessarily those of Wavebob Limited or its other shareholders.

  Based on our R&D work on the Wavebob, and what we have learnt generally during the last few years, the issues raised by the Science and Technology Committee may be responded to as follows:

    —  Technological viability: Following a series of independent theoretical analyses, and empirical testing (more to follow), we have good evidence that the technology required for efficient power generation from ocean wave energy will be available within the next two to three years;

    —  Commercial availability: Our target is to deliver electricity to the shore at prices in the range 3-5 eurocents per kilowatt hour. We consider this to be achievable and to be bettered in the future. A single "wave-farm" should typically have an installed capacity of several hundred MWe. We expect better efficiencies, greater availability and lower costs than for offshore wind (the latter also being constrained to shallower water);

    —  Current projects: Near-shore or shoreline OWC's must necessarily be very limited for three reasons: the available resource is very much smaller at the shoreline; relatively very high civil costs per MWe installed; air turbines cannot compete commercially with hydraulics for power take-off. Of the UK's offshore/near shore devices, the Pelamis is commendable, but its seaworthiness in open waters may be a problem, nor is it truly axi-symmetric;

    —  Renewables strategy: The scale of the resource should speak for itself; it will in due course become more significant than, say, at a regional level, North Sea oil and gas. I would respectively suggest that the most expeditious strategy would be to give fiscal incentives to industry rather than grants to universities, in particular target the major players in the energy sector and motivated SME's. The former are fully aware of the coming changes in their sector, the latter often have the commercial motivation and the ideas. Universities have led the R&D and will surely continue to contribute but they have not, normally, the same sense of urgency to drive the process, nor to take short cuts or risks;

    —  Research and development: The DTI's recent New and Renewable Energy Programme included Wave as a priority; the DTI has also recognised the opportunity to transfer technology from the offshore industries. The RPSRC seems unsympathetic. The success of wave energy projects in a recent SRO was remarkable. Direct EC co-financing of wave energy research is minuscule but, indirectly, investment in large-scale testing facilities may be beneficial. We have consistently sought peer reviews, but as the R&D progressed it became increasingly difficult to find qualified reviewers. The sea is an effective judge;

    —  Environmental aspects: The Wavebob will be slackly moored, typically in water depths of 100m or more. It is not a permanent fixture; most of the device will be underwater. A wave-farm will be a navigational hazard, somewhat comparable to a collection of large Admiralty buoys. On-board hydraulic fluids may be bio-degradable, but either way the quantities will be small and doubly enclosed. Judiciously sited, a wave-farm might protect known breeding grounds;

    —  International comparisons: As an Irishman, I hesitate! But, based on attendance at EU Wave Energy Conferences, various workshops and meetings, literature surveys, and so forth, I offer the following:

    The UK's (`Britain' is the term used here in your call, but may I assume NI is included?) has a very high standing in the R&D in this sector. Notably university led, conspicuously by Belfast and Edinburgh. In terms of theoretical understanding, Norway has an at least comparable if not a better record, once again university led (Trondheim). At a national level, ie trying to encourage an emerging technology, the Danes have made significant commitments. Portugal (OWC in Pico and the AWS pilot plants), the Netherlands (the AWS), Sweden (Chalmers and Gotenburg universities) and Ireland (McCabe Pump and the Wavebob) are all in evidence. Noted concepts have arisen in Japan (the BBDB) and the USA. Wildly impractical ideas still proliferate. Of the various current projects, and apart from small OWC devices, a very few devices have been or are in the process of being realised at full scale,—two OWC devices (the Limpet and one on Pico) and the AWS (Archimedes Wave Swing) a Dutch invention being erected off Portugal. Richard Yemm's Pelamis is well researched and may reach full-scale implementation.

A further comment and suggestion

  As a general comment, coupled with a suggestion, and both offered with all due deference, your "Call for Evidence" reflects an insular approach, one that must prejudice early success in a technology that could be so very significant.

  In our case we have established a strong design team, and one that is a happy mix of expertise from universities, small and large industries, technical consultants and state institutions. The R&D work is spread between Ireland, Northern Ireland, Britain, Norway and Greece, ie wherever the appropriate excellence is available and is willingly provided.

  The problems of climate change, combined with finite resources of fossil fuels and the inevitable matters of cost and security of supply, are global. The seas are part of the common heritage of man, but the ocean wave energy resource that they carry is not evenly distributed. We in this part of Europe have a unique opportunity and an urgent duty to harness this resource.

  I believe that it would be right if the "coastal" states1 of NW Europe worked together to encourage the development of this technology. There are common barriers that need to be removed and there is scope for a greatly accelerated development. This might best be achieved at a political level, and via the European Parliament. The EU has taken a lead in pressing for reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but as yet the Commission has evidently little faith in wave energy conversion as a serious option. In any event EC programmes tend to be cumbersome methods of funding industrial R&D where there are commercial goals.

  The DTI draft report2 listed several key technology issues and made five recommendations. To these, four more generation recommendations could be added:

    —  A properly equipped open sea test site for full-size pilot plants, perhaps internationally funded. That at Nissum Bredning in Denmark is in sheltered waters and suitable for small-scale devices. As such it is a useful clearing ground, but could not meet the needs of rigorous empirical testing, for which a large wave tank is essential;

    —  Financial support for industry-led renewables R&D, and for private investors, both perhaps as fiscal instruments; both quite distinct from competitive research grants;

    —  Abandonment of the NFFO/SRO/AER competitions in favour of pre-determined and adequately priced power purchase agreements for any qualifying scheme and thus share some of the risk at national level.


  1  These to include Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Portugal, Ireland and the UK.

  2  DTI Wave Energy: Technology Transfer & R&D Recommendations. Draft Report. Ove Arup and Partners International Ltd. October 2000.

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