In this interview, Prof. John Kemp talks about wave energy conversion developments, relationships between wind and wave energy projects, and the UK government’s work in promoting renewable energy.
Interview date: July, 2009
Interviewer: Toby Price
Firstly, Could you please describe how OWEL came about? What made you decide to concentrate on wave energy and its potential uses?
I have long been interested in the environment and the damage that has been inflicted on it by human activity. This is not all the fault of my generation, of course, but I feel we should do our best to recover the situation so that our grandchildren (of whom I have eight) can inherit a world that is in reasonably good shape.
I was a sailor for ten years before swallowing the anchor and degenerating into an academic, so it was natural for me to seek to exploit wave energy as a source of renewable energy.
OWEL has completed a feasibility study of the Grampus wave energy converter which has confirmed its technical performance and the commercial viability of the concept. I understand that it is planned to construct and test a sea-going Grampus platform, probably at the EMEC facility in Orkney. However, OWEL says on its website that it requires further funding for this stage, and equity in the company is offered to potential investors. What would you say to any potential investors reading this interview?
Now is a good time to invest in wave energy projects, generally. This is because recent statements by the Department of Energy and Climate Change and by the Carbon Trust, amongst others, have identified a need for ocean wave energy to be developed so that, in conjunction with offshore wind energy, it can make an essential contribution to meeting Government targets for reduced carbon dioxide emissions. More specifically, it is clear that serious investment is only attractive for wave energy devices that can partner offshore wind turbines on equal terms.
Offshore wind turbines are now produced with rated powers of 5 MW or more, and wave energy devices must match these outputs if they are to contribute at a comparable level. The few wave energy devices that can deliver this kind of power can expect that their research, development and demonstration (RD&D) effort will be given support from public bodies, but private finance will also be needed. The OWEL Grampus is a leader amongst these few multimegawatt devices that hold long-term promise for investors.
How do you see the Grampus WEC Project panning out over the next 12 to 18 months?
The OWEL Grampus project is commencing a further round of tank-testing and mathematical modelling. At the present stage, financial support is being provided by the South-west Regional Development Agency and matching private investment. By the end of 2009, we expect to have confirmed the wave to compressed air efficiencies of OWEL technology, and to have identified the optimal device geometry. This will lead on to the design of a first seagoing prototype which, subject to a new round of funding, could be deployed in 2011.
On the OWEL website, you list many advantages for the Grampus WEC, including its simplicity, low cost and low maintenance, but what about its impact on marine life. Have you performed any environmental impact analysis so far?
It is planned that an OWEL platform will be moored to a single-point mooring buoy. The only significant environmental impact will be the footprint of the (probably) four buoy anchors on the sea bed. There are many years of experience with such mooring systems in terms of their environmental impact.
An OWEL platform will be constructed of concrete and it is expected that marine growth on the outside of the structure will develop to provide nursery areas for fish and other marine organisms.
I imagine you keep a keen eye on rival concepts and products that are being developed on the market, not only for wave power conversion but also for generating energy from the tides and ocean currents. What do you consider to be the most exciting and feasible concepts you have seen over the last 12 months?
Naturally, we monitor concepts and products that might be in competition with our OWEL technology. Also, clearly, we believe that our own technology has the best potential for meeting future energy needs, otherwise, we would not remain in business.
My own feeling is that, despite occasional setbacks, steady rather than spectacular, progress is being made in developing tidal stream and wave energy devices. The most exciting development seems to me to be in the field of offshore wind and the recent deployment of the first floating wind turbine, the “Hywind”, by Statoil Hydro off the Norwegian coast. This development means that offshore wind turbines can be deployed anywhere that a wave energy device can be deployed. With this choice, and even allowing for synergies, operators will be reluctant to invest in wave energy devices that produce significantly less power than wind turbines.
Where do you see wave energy conversion in the next five years?
Over the next five years, I would expect to see some fall-out amongst the seventy or so wave energy devices that are at some stage of development. In particular, those that cannot be scaled up to match the increasing power of offshore wind turbines are likely to be restricted to niche applications.
Do you consider that wind energy and wave energy projects will be developed hand-in-hand in the future considering the synergies that can be tapped, such as installing wind turbines atop wave converters?
Yes. For many, but not all, sea areas wind and wave energy devices should be deployed within a coordinated plan. It is true that there is little scope for large-scale wave energy in enclosed sea areas such as the North Sea or the Baltic. On the other hand, along the Atlantic arc and on western, ocean facing, coasts in other parts of the world, it would make neither technical nor commercial sense to rely on offshore wind alone. At a particular site, under calm wind conditions, there may be energetic waves generated by weather systems a thousand miles away. In addition to greater consistency of supply, co-siting wind and wave devices has other synergies such as shared power cables and even shared platforms.
At a broader level, how would you rate the UK government’s efforts to push forward the deployment of renewable energy solutions in the UK in light of its 2020 commitment?
I agree with a number of reports, some from Government sources, that the UK will need to develop a mix of renewable energy technologies in order to meet its 2020 commitment and, beyond that, its 2050 target. The Government has, in fact, committed considerable sums of money to support low carbon technology development. However, in order to deliver the required mix, there is an urgent need to feed more of that funding to those of us who are prepared to get our feet wet at the nuts and bolts end of the effort to develop and commercialise the required technologies.
Some 35 GW of new renewable energy capacity is needed by 2020. Although the Department of Energy and Climate Change considers that much of this new capacity will be in wind energy, as these technologies are the most developed for the available resources and at a scale that can deliver the deployment targets, the DECC also claims that marine wave and tidal work will make a valuable contribution and is being led by the UK, with excellent marine R&D facilities. Please could you describe how the UK government is helping companies like yourselves to push forward with R&D?
We, at OWEL, have enjoyed support from Government funding for our initial feasibility study and, later, through the Carbon Trust, for a first research and development project. This has been followed by our present research and development stage, supported by the South-west Regional Development Agency. This support has been much appreciated and, at each stage, it has helped us to attract matching private investment.
As development proceeds, projects tend to become more expensive, and this will be particularly the case at our next stage when we plan to construct, deploy, test and demonstrate a seagoing prototype. Appropriate public funding at that stage would be highly desirable as a catalyst for significant private investment.
We believe the OWEL wave energy technology is one of the very few capable of playing a part, on equal terms, with offshore wind to make a substantial contribution to meeting UK carbon efficiency targets. We are confident that this will be recognised as an opportunity by both public and private investors.