Monday 23 September 2013

EWTEC – Inore panel session

Thankyou to INORE for organising an engaging and enjoyable workshop on the last afternoon of EWTEC 2013, Aalborg. If you've not heard of INORE, they are fantastic – enough said! See their website for details of fantastivity. The workshop had a questions-and-answers panel session, followed by discussions in break-out groups. The panel consisted of António F. de O. Falcão (IST in Portugal), Bruce Cameron (Nova Scotia Department of Energy), Chul H. Jo (Inha University in South Korea), Peter Frigaard (Aalborg University), Jens Peter Kofoed (Aalborg University), Enrique Vidal Sánchez (Wavestar), and Ian Masters (Swansea University in Wales). The workshop was peppered with discussions around my current favourite topic – technology development paths. I'm going to pick out some of these points, as they tell a story when brought together.

'Good, fast, cheap – choose two!'

I arrived late, so unfortunately did not note down which of the panel members made this assertion. Prof Falcão was clearly rooting for 'good' before 'cheap'. He said that reliability was more important than cost of energy at this point in the technology development process (echoing the approach supported by EMECinstallability and reliability being earlier priorities than cost-effectiveness). Prof Falcão offered the situation in Portugal as a warning of the industry-wide consequences of not prioritising reliability. Portugal is good for wave energy. There is a good resource, a support tariff, and enthusiasm for the technology. In the last 9 years, 3 major wave prototype projects were tested in Portugal; all suffered from reliability problems. The perception of these projects as failures has badly damaged the reputation of wave energy in Portugal. Prof Falcão fears this has affected the funding available to wave power in Portugal. Of course the economic crisis has decreased the investment capital available to all sectors; nevertheless, Portuguese floating offshore wind has managed to find funding. He noted that offshore wind trials have not experienced the reliability setbacks suffered by Portuguese wave power projects.

'If things break down, its not economic'

Bruce Cameron didn't think that reliability and cost-effectiveness were necessarily trade-offs. He noted that in fact reliability was a prerequisite for cost-effectiveness. Of course Prof Falcão was not suggesting 'good' in preference to 'cheap' as an end-goal, simply as a priority for first arrays. Perhaps Bruce Cameron meant that proving cost effectiveness was a priority for first demonstration arrays, and that reliability was a crucial element. He asserted that big arrays were required to prove reliability and cost-effectiveness.

Enrique Vidal Sánchez disagreed with the need for big arrays. He offered the example of the growth of the wind industry in Denmark. Denmark started with small wind. The motivation was certainly not cost-effectiveness, as the small turbines were anything but. In his opinion, the Danish value things that are 'good for the environment'.

The power of good intentions

As an aside, this raised an interesting idea for me. Personally, I am very sceptical of green-wash: you don't have to look too far or too closely to spot green intentions going horribly wrong. Perhaps I would have raised an 'and what's the energy payback time on that then?' eyebrow at the Danish farmers with their wind turbines built from tractor parts. Despite the reality of high costs, they persevered, because their intention was to do something good for the environment. The good intention has paid off – wind power is now cheap enough that it is being deployed in significant amounts.

The social aspects of small-scale homestead wind turbines may have played a role in the Danish wind story. Many small turbines were owned and maintained by farmers who used the power on-site. By buying early small-scale turbines, these farmers were essentially funding the gradual development of wind power, as well as beta-testing it. This only worked because many people were doing it. The capital cost of each turbine was within a homeowner's budget. Individuals can make a decision to fund such a project, as it could be seen as a lifestyle choice, rather than an economic decision. If however the new technology in question is big and capital intensive, its development needs to be funded by big money, and hence the priorities become rather more pragmatic.

'Either nothing or a big device'

Prof Falcão described why he thought wave power would struggle to follow the development path taken by Danish wind. While solar panels and small wind turbines can be mounted on the roof of a house, this is not an option for wave power. He offered his opinion that 'you cannot put a small device in open sea', explaining that it would not be cost effective because the small amounts of power generated would not cover the expensive fixed overheads, such as access. While wind has benefited from being able to slowly scale up, in wave power, you 'either have nothing or a big device'. My understanding of this statement is that while a small wind turbine is 'full scale', and simply less economic than a large one, it is justified to consider a small version of a large WEC as 'part scale' because the performance is generally frequency dependent.

Prof Falcão noted that the large capital costs of full-scale WEC prototypes has made the development of WECs very risky to fund. The type of investment most readily available for high risk, large capital projects is venture capital, which comes with the expectation of a healthy profit and return and the return of the original capital within 5 years. It is clear to me (see Andrew Garrad's 'Peaks and Troughs' talk) that the wind industry would not have thrived in such an investment environment, and yet this is largely how wave power commercialisation has been funded to date.

Things you learn from going to sea

Following on from the theme of going to sea with a full scale device, Kate Freeman asked each member of the panel what can be learnt from sea trials of a wave power prototype. The answers were as follows:
  • Prof Jo: learn from failures and identify weak links that drive required design improvements, e.g. in wind power, gears are a source of failure, and this is motivating the move to gearless solutions.
  • Peter Frigaard: measurement of design loads.
  • Enrique Vidal Sánchez: demonstrate the ability to generate electricity (rather than harvest energy).
  • Ian Masters: reliability of sensors: e.g. the first MCT at Lynmouth suffered many sensor failures.
  • Bruce Cameron: environmental impact – the uncertainty of harm to the environment could 'shut the industry down' by delaying consenting and damaging the social licence.

Image credits:

Duck pond: Bloggers own photo – a water feature in an artist's courtyard in Old Aalborg.

Thankyou to the panel members for checking I'd heard them correctly; spelt their names right etc.

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