The Generator That Proves Ocean Energy Can Work
For the first time in Australia's history, a wave energy converter trial has successfully generated energy from the chaotic and wild ocean waves to power homes.
For years, companies around the world have tried to harness the power of the ocean, with varying degrees of success.
"This is really the first project that has successfully generated electricity for a customer, and that goes to prove that ocean energy can work," Stephanie Thornton from Australian Ocean Energy Group said.
Sitting off the King Island coast in Bass Strait, the unit — made by Melbourne company Wave Swell Energy — has been generating power for the island's local energy grid for the past year.
"It's a huge success from our point of view," King Island mayor Julie Arnold said.
"It's providing power for the island, it's renewable, it's a method that could be used in other places so we're very happy to be pioneering it.
"We're a community that does look at our environment every day, certainly with a lot of what's going on around the world, I think more and more importance is being placed on environmentally sustainable ways to provide power."
Australia's first successful trial
"It's really exciting for us," said chief CEO of Wave Swell Energy Paul Geason.
"We've been very focused on this trial and proving the capabilities of the technology we deployed …and now 12 months later we've achieved what we set out to do.
"We've been generating electricity from the waves of the southern ocean that have been captured in the unit, that was our primary objective.
"That electricity is of a very high quality and has been accepted by Hydro Tasmania as suitable for the grid on King Island, so that's a very important achievement."
"The conversion rates that we've been able to achieve in terms of the amount of electricity we are able to extract from the wave energy that comes into the unit is very high," Mr Geason said.
"On average, we've been able to achieve conversion rates of 48 per cent, so 48 per cent of the energy that comes in, in the wave, is then exported onto the grid on King Island.
"That rate is very encouraging and in fact is higher than other renewable energy technologies."
Why did it work while others failed?
The team behind it said its success all came down to the unique design.
The $12 million unit was constructed in Launceston and extensively tested at the Australian Maritime College.
It was towed across last year to King Island and placed in the rough waves off Grassy Harbour.
Since then, the team have been tested it in a range of harsh weather conditions.
"We have now operated the unit and it has survived for the last 12 months in the very harsh conditions of Bass Strait … and we've achieved the objectives we set out to achieve," Mr Geason said.
"Now we find ourselves in a position where we've proven the technology and the next stage is now to move forward and commercialise the technology and see it become mainstream as part of the global mix of renewable energies."
The 200-kilowatt wave energy converter has no moving parts in the water and uses an oscillating water column design, which essentially mimics a natural blow hole.
Waves go in, rise and fall, and move air up into the turbine, which then converts into power.
It sits on the seabed and has an opening on one side to allow the movement of the waves in and out of the chamber.
The company said there was a trial in Scotland that was having success too, but that was mainly using tidal energy and did not have the blowhole design.
'Seeing is believing'
As defined by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, wave energy is generated by converting the energy within ocean waves into electricity.
Tidal energy, however, comes in two forms, both of which generate electricity.
Tidal range technologies harvest the potential energy created by the height difference between high and low tides, and tidal stream technologies capture the kinetic energy of currents flowing in and out of tidal areas, such as seashores.
"We have something to showcase that works and now we can build on that and build that customer demand that we're looking for," said Stephanie Thornton from the Australian Ocean Energy Group.
"What's really exciting for me is that seeing is believing, and up until now even though there's been a lot of innovation, a lot of the technology has not been very visible.
"So with this success, where it goes from here is now to see many more prototypes and demonstration projects in the water and really being able to showcase the benefits of ocean energy."
Using the ocean for energy is a concept many companies have tried to harness.
In 2010, a large wave sunk a wave energy generator off the New South Wales coast, and in 2014 in South Australia, a unit was being towed into position when one of the flotation devices ruptured and it sank.
Since then, there have been other units trailed and funding committed for research.
Can more units now be made?
The unit can be made five times larger than the pilot converter and placed off any coastline anywhere in the world.
Wave Swell said it was open to working with interested companies who would provide the funding and resources to build future units.
"In terms of the commercial scale-up … it will most likely be a bigger unit, and also have a bigger engine, so at least five times bigger," Mr Geason said.
"So for us, it means finding those parties and we will work with them, bringing our knowledge and know-how to help them."
The units can also be integrated into being part of a breakwater or sea wall in the ocean — off Pacific Island Nations, for example — to help combat rising sea levels and coastal erosion.
"There are sovereign governments in those islands that are very concerned to ensure that they are building resilient infrastructure so that's also presenting as a very considerable opportunity for us," he said.
"There's also interest out of Europe, in the United States and India, so we need to identify which projects are the next step for the technology."
"We would hope that maybe seeing it work here on a pilot basis might give them some hope," Ms Arnold said.
An ocean of possibilities ahead
Wave Swell said it would "love" to see another unit operating off the Australian coastline.
"Given we are an emerging technology, the very obvious market for us to pursue is the Australian market," Mr Geason said.
"The Australian oceans have some of the best waves in the world, and waves that are well located to grid access, and to electricity demand, many of us live on the coastline."
But Mr Geason said more support for the industry was needed.
"Solar and wind have received substantial government support … wave is now in that position, it needs policy support and funding, that's vital for the industry taking its next steps," he said.
Experts in the field have said the stigma around wave energy converters failing also needed to change for the sector to move forward.
"Every technology in the world has had failures, but that's really part of experimenting and learning from it and reinventing and growing, so that's the challenge," Ms Arnold said.
"In our industry, people remember the ones that didn't work, and think, 'Oh well that's ocean energy, so it can't possibly be successful', when in fact that's not true and this unit has proven that.
"It's exciting … I hope demand for ocean energy grows from here."