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Jussi Havia and Mikko Nyman of AW-Energy Oy, explain how the industry is racing to find alternatives to oil, gas and other energy-dense hydrocarbons.

In an era where human civilisation is experiencing rapid, unprecedented climate change, the global race to find energy alternatives to oil, gas and other hydrocarbons is sparking a shift in mindset. Havia believes that we are at a moment in time of huge transition socially, economically, politically and technically, and that there is a major energy transition unfolding on a scale we haven’t experienced before. “Some have termed it ‘Industry 4.0’. What is certain is that what we once knew is no longer relevant, and what we do know is that there are a lot of unknowns.”

With per-kilowatt prices dropping by the day, solar and wind power look like an increasingly viable bet for the future. “There are still challenges to overcome,” says Havia. “The sun only shines during the day, and in very few places wind is constant enough to generate electricity all the time. And as easy as it sounds, storing energy for later use has proven a major challenge.”

Weather patterns are changing beyond the unknown, and forecasting has become ever more critical to how power supply is predicted. How could the renewable energy mix be diversified and strengthened? Is there a reliable, predictable source of clean energy that remains untapped?

A report by the analyst firm Zion Market Research forecasts revenues from tidal and wave energy are set to rise more than tenfold over the next five years. And, what about the influential International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena)? It predicts with a potential capacity of 80,000 terawatt hours a year, ocean energy could feasibly satisfy the world’s entire power needs.

Yet the sector’s growth is hindered by a number of uncertainties, also independent and preceding the disturbance caused by the coronavirus. “National energy policies and incentives for renewable energy have been essential in the expansion of wind and solar capacity. However, with regards to a zero emissions future these policies often have a limited time horizon,” says Nyman. “Investors and insurance providers are focused on the short term as national energy policies are seldom structured to support developments spanning beyond the timeframe of political power voted in for a few years. We are lacking that 30 year energy charter that aligns all cross-party groups and secures long-term focus on national and international energy investments and expansion.”

Long-term policies are needed

Today, the coronavirus pandemic poses an additional threat on uptake of renewable energy as incentives around the world to invest in renewable projects are set to expire and few new commitments have been made. Both Havia and Nyman agree that now more than ever, short-term policy actions should be aligned with a long-term focus to lower carbon emissions, and that a combination of different energy policies need to be implemented that encourage research and development.

Nyman suggests that ocean energy is today how wind was perceived some 20 years ago. “There is tremendous potential and an opportunity here to create a global industry on a sustainable business. To meet climate goals and uncover the least-cost option for decarbonization, there needs to be greater financial support provided for these solutions.”

Ocean energy – described by Havia as the third line of defence to support tomorrow’s clean energy demand – is facing one of its biggest challenges yet. “With falling costs of offshore wind making wind power ever more commercially viable on a larger scale, it is very difficult for tidal and wave energy of all types to be price competitive in the developed nations. It is an unfair analogy because it is all about scale. If wave and tidal were at the same scale today across Europe in terms of GW as wind power then we would be having a very different conversation as to why wind power wasn’t as competitive as wave and tidal! However awareness is building and we are getting there in terms of wider recognition on the comparability of wave and tidal technology versus wind.”

Is industry too focused on just one aspect of the alternative energy mix?

Nyman says that ocean energy has to compete with offshore wind that has been in development throughout recorded history. “People first used wind energy to propel boats along the Nile River as early as 5,000 BC. By 200 BC, simple wind-powered water pumps were used in China, and windmills with woven-reed blades were grinding grain in Persia and the Middle East. The first known wind turbine used to produce electricity was built in Scotland, UK, in 1887.”

“Likewise, solar technology isn’t new. Its history spans from the 7th Century B.C. when humans first learnt to manipulate the rays of the sun with reflective and translucent materials. Photovoltaic technology emerged in the United States in 1954 when Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson developed the silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell at Bell Labs” – the first solar cell capable of converting enough of the sun’s energy into power to run every day electrical equipment.

By comparison, the first known patent to use energy from ocean waves dates back to just 1799, and the modern scientific pursuit of wave energy to the 1940s, pioneered by Yoshio Masuda’s experiments. World’s first commercial wave power device, the Islay IMPET, was installed on the coast of Islay in Scotland and connected to the National Grid in 2000.

“As a result, many wave and tidal energy devices are not yet seen as part of the solution for tomorrow’s energy mix. But this will change,” says Nyman.

Awareness is increasing

Choppy as the waters might have been, the wave and tidal energy sector is beginning to get a look in. “There is an increasing awareness of a renewable energy mix that contains more than simply wind and solar, and it’s getting air time on the board room agenda of companies across the world,” says Havia.

Wave and tidal energy never stops. As long as the moon stays in the sky, the tides will keep rising and receding explains Havia: “The sea is the world’s biggest battery and wave energy devices such as our own WaveRoller technology seeks to use that power – the largest untapped resource in renewable energy. Generating power from the tides and waves presents a really interesting technical problem to solve. And there’s a lot of really good pioneering work going into this.”

Many in the scientific community believe that this type of energy could, in theory alone, meet the global electricity demand if it were developed to its full potential. “Waves are abundant and widely available and provide an almost limitless source of energy without producing greenhouse gases.”

Nyman adds: “Wave energy is all about location, location, location! There are many cities on the coastlines of energy intensive waves, which decreases the cost of bringing wave electricity to customers.” Over 40 per cent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the ocean, “… which means major centres of domestic, commercial and industrial electricity consumption – including hospitals, street lights, TVs and computers – could be powered by waves.”

Improvements in wave energy technology will improve the efficiency in power production and reduce its costs. Havia and Nyman note that alongside other renewable energy sources, wave energy could help the EU achieve its goal of renewable energy having a 20% share in electrical production. “Wave energy should not be the only way to increase the share of renewable energy, but it can be made to be an affordable and easy addition to support wind and solar power. It has the potential to make a huge contribution towards our future clean energy needs, but it needs to be done in a sustainable way.”