Monday 3 June 2013

AEO Trends and Titbits - commercialisation

It was simply not possible to see everything I wanted to at All Energy Opportunities 2013. Quite apart from half the exhibition hall being prematurely closed due to an excessively mobile tent, some of the talks were on concurrently. This year there was a new quickfire seminar series where wave and tidal developers could report on their progress. I spent as much time at these talks as the official conference (sessions Wave and Tidal 6&7, and Offshore Wind 3). There were some interesting comments about the commercialisation process. Here are the highlights:

Best (late) mid-life crisis: 
Niel Kermode (EMEC) gave a heart-warming pep-talk. As EMEC turns 10 this year, he had been reflecting on what had been achieved. With his own birthday approaching, this introspection spread to his own life. He showed how the world had changed since he was born (1959): 'population has doubled, oil use per person has trebled, CO2 emitted per person has more than trebled, and the oil price has quadrupled'. With only 20 years more life expectation, he wondered what he could do personally to stem the inevitable crisis. As if in answer to this question, he recounted all the success stories at EMEC.

Commercial challenges facing marine energy
Just as it is good to occasionally remind ourselves of the worthiness of this engineering challenge, it is also good to acknowledge these challenges. Some of the challenges are commercial in nature. Peter Fraenkel (Fraenkel Wright) reminded us that we face competition from technologies which have benefited from funding for military applications: steam turbines were developed for WWI ships, gas turbines for WWII aeroplanes, and nuclear power for their payloads.

Win Rampen (Artemis Intelligent Power), speaking in the Offshore Wind 3 session, spoke of his own experience of developing technology originally designed for wave energy. It was not possible to fund development at the time, so they licensed the technology to partners for exclusive use in particular sectors (e.g. cars, diggers), while keeping the learning in-house. The technology has returned to the renewable sector and is now being developed as a wind turbine drive train. Win reflected on the pitfall that his company had been fortunate to avoid: if they'd pursued conventional funding routes, there would have been pressure to prove to their funders that they were further along in technology readiness level than they were. This would have lead them to skip steps, and as a result they would have missed out on essential learning. He observed that there did not appear to be funding available for stepwise development of marine renewables.

Signs of realism emerging: 
Several speakers acknowledged the importance of stepwise development. Neil Kermode (EMEC) stressed the importance of 'working your way down the stack' of abilities: 'installability, survivability, reliability, maintainability, operability and cost-effectiveness' (or should the last point be 'profitability'?). On the EMEC blog Neil observed that some developers do not address these points in this sequence. Andrew Scott (Pelamis) referred to the two P2 devices currently at EMEC as 'not commercial … demonstration' devices. Ken Street (Alstom) noted that we are 'running a marathon, not a sprint'. Rob Saunders (TSB) noted that we are 'creating an industry from scratch'.

Adventures in niche markets:  
Several developers discussed using niche markets to get around the difficultly in funding stepwise development. Simon Forrest (Nova Innovation) described plans for a community owned 30kW tidal stream turbine. He explained the rationale behind this project. Following the example of Danish wind, they aimed to 'think big, start small'. Rather than developing a product for a niche market, they are using a niche market to develop a product. Although a smaller turbine gives more expensive energy (per kWh), the project cost is lower. In Shetland the price per kWh is less of an issue, as they are competing with shipped-in diesel. However, the low capital and maintenance costs mean that the company is able to provide guarantees without risking its survival. This allows development 'at a pace that the technology can cope with'.

Oleg Dmitriev (VERT Labs) announced that their wave energy technology was designed for off-grid applications where diesel has to be shipped, e.g. fish farms. Although the present focus is a niche market, their ultimate goal is cities and industrial loads located near medium energy wave resources. David Campbell (AlbaTERN) unveiled the 'Wavenet' which was also designed for off-grid communities and aquaculture. He said that wave generated electricity at 60-70 p/kWh would be comparable to diesel.

Michael Ottaviano (Carnegie) give updates on the progress of the Perth Wave Energy Project at Garden Island, a grid connected array of CETO devices. Bearing in mind Peter Fraenkel's previous comment about competing technologies having benefited from military funding, it should be noted that this is a project to provide an alternative source of power to an Australian naval base. This is not however the first wave energy project to have benefited from military funding: OPT had a pilot project in Hawaii sponsored by the US Navy. 

Image credit:
'You could call it another lonely day' by badjonni:

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