Marine Energy Investments

The Challenge & Opportunities in the Marine Energy Sector

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted April 11, 2009

Has the tide gone out on marine energy?

The Pelamis wave energy converter project in Portugal was scuttled in March due to technical setbacks. . .

But even with that 21 MW project coming offline, the learning curve for offshore hydropower is getting shorter and shorter. So, we're getting closer and closer to harnessing the 2-3 million MW of coastal wave energy resources around the world.

Even when they're located near seaside cities, ocean energy facilities face many of the same challenges as offshore wind power. Both resources must, of course, be tied back to land with efficient and robust transmission systems.

And as the stiff maritime breezes can generate millions of megawatts, they can also destroy millions of dollars in engineering if extreme weather hits.

For disaster repairs and regular maintenance alike, marine energy devices have to be readily accessible from the ocean surface.

Pelamis aimed too high by shooting for a "hands-free" operation with no maintenance at the offshore site and "no offshore intervention."

Would we expect a coal-fired power plant to run without maintenance? How about a hydroelectric dam, for water-to-water comparison?

The answer is no. . . This was clean-fuel folly, plain and simple.

Of course, there are other companies besides Pelamis in many other resource-rich coastal regions besides western Europe. . .


Beyond Pelamis

In Japan, which imports nearly all of its energy, they've tried a different wave energy conversion technique, channeling tidal water into narrow aqua-corrals along the coastline. Known as Tapchan, this technology has the benefit of being based onshore.

Tropical regions may be able to make use of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC), which operates on many of the same heat vapor conversion principles as geothermal energy.

Here in the U.S., Rhode Island's Ocean Wave Energy Company is developing a system of movable floats anchored to a base plate below. That contrasts with Pelamis, whose floats were more or less strung together end to end with hinged joints.

Pelamis's machines may also be an example of overreaching size for wave energy devices—each cylinder is 180 meters, or nearly two football fields in length. Maybe less is more when it comes to marine energy?

Above all the trial and error we're seeing when it comes to ocean energy modules, if the electricity can't get to shore, then it ain't worth a thing.

That's why the best play on offshore renewable energy, bar none, is European engineering giant ABB (NYSE:ABB).

ABB: the Missing Link for Marine Energy

ABB pioneered high-voltage direct current (HVDC) technology specific to the maritime fossil fuel industry, and those same applications can be used for renewables.

ABB has already delivered undersea grid linkups like the one between Finland's Nordpool grid and Estonia's Baltic grid to the south, running under the Baltic Sea.

HVDC Light, developed by ABB in the 1990s to link oil rig platforms to electricity grids, other platforms, and even nearby wind turbines, is the best bet for bringing marine energy to market. HVDC Light has an economical transmission range extending from just over 30 MW all the way up to 1,200 MW.

Pelamis, with mammoth machines intended to power 15,000 coastal homes with 21 MW output, didn't even hit the lower bound of ABB's HVDC Light capacity.

That's the state of marine energy today in a nutshell: too much and too little at the same time.

Without a doubt, we'll keep you up to date as marine energy changes to meet its challenges.


Sam Hopkins

International Editor

P.S. — Once wave energy companies get their prototypes together and operational, there's still the matter of securing financing in today's lock-box credit environment. I'm heading to the Renewable Energy Finance Forum in Rio April 27-28, to find out which clean energy technologies are making the grade and getting funding, and which companies are in the forefront and bringing it all back to shore, so to speak. Green Chip International subscribers just closed a double-digit global energy gain yesterday, and they'll also have exclusive multimedia access to my reports from Brazil in just a couple weeks. To learn more about GCI, click here.