Wave Power for Virginia? Scotland Shows the Way.

Aug 12, 2015

This week, we’re reporting on marine energy – power generated from waves, currents and tides.  As a state with 112 miles of coastline, Virginia should be a prime candidate for development of this resource, but so far there’s no sign of an industry.  To understand why, reporter Sandy Hausman traveled to Scotland – ground zero for efforts to exploit marine energy in Europe.

Orkney is a chain of 70 islands off the coast of Northern Scotland – a cool, misty place where Stonehenge-like monuments rise alongside grazing sheep and cattle.  Its best-known export might be Highland Park whiskey, and its best-known citizen might be Dave Gray, senior producer for the BBC and host of a morning show that highlights local happenings.

“Hello and good morning … in the general election."

Over the years, Gray has seen a growing interest in renewable energy.  The wind here now supply all the electricity used by the main island’s 20,000 residents, and the economy is strong.

“It’s had an effect alright. There’s lots of development.  There are jobs, windmills – things like that.  We’ve got piers; we’ve got buildings that have been built on the back of the renewable energy industry, so there are lots of things happening.” 

Orkney can now meet all of its electrical needs, and at the European Marine Energy Center, director Neal Kermode says they’re working on ways to store the excess – charging the island’s 35 electric cars and shooting electricity into fresh water to split hydrogen from oxygen for use in rechargeable batteries.

“We’re just about to contract for building an electrolizer to produce hydrogen, and then a fuel cell for using that hydrogen to demonstrate how we can turn water into portable fuels. Once you have hydrogen, you’re into a whole different economy, because suddenly you can make methane, you can make plastics, you can make petroleum – because that’s the fundamental building block of all the hydrocarbons.”

Orkney could also share its extra power, but Dave Gray says no one is willing to pay for a cable to connect this energy-rich area with major population centers in the UK.

“It is something that’s seen as a crop – something that we’re producing here that we can export to other places, but if you can’t get it off the island, it’s just so much wasted time.” 

Virginia would not have that problem, since one of this state’s largest population centers -- Hampton Roads – is on the coast, with a robust connection to the grid.  But we face another problem that confronts developers everywhere.  Marine energy is a brand new industry.

John Breslin is General Manager of  SmartBay Ireland, a not-for-profit  set up to manage his country’s demonstration center on Galway Bay. We caught up with him at a conference in Washington, D.C.

“If you look how long it took to actually develop the modern wind turbine, it took 25 years. + What’s happening at the moment is consolidations.  We have lots of different types of devices that harness power in different ways.  We’re going to see some people drop off.  They’re going to enter the valley of death and not come back.  What will happen over the next five to ten years is a device or a few types of devices will emerge, and that’s when this industry will really take off.”

Until then, there are no economies of scale.  It’s expensive to produce small numbers of underwater turbines, and the cost of installing them is relatively high, all at a time when the public has access to cheaper alternatives.  Here, again, is the BBC’s Dave Gray.

“What’s wrong at the moment is that there’s no desperation.  There’s still loads of fossil fuels.  There’s still plenty of gas from Russia, so somebody’s got to say, ‘Right. This is a lot of money, but somebody’s got to get it done.’”

In our next report, we’ll meet some of those who are getting it done in the U.S. and assess Virginia’s potential in the evolving world of marine energy. 

Sandy Hausman reported from Europe with the support of an Energy and Climate Media Fellowship from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.