Sun, sea & gale force winds

Wavebob's wave energy buoy

Wavebob's wave energy buoy

Wave / Wavebob

As an island nation the benefits of wave-generated power are clear however the technology has until now been unreliable at best. Irish company Wavebob believes it has devised the solution that could eventually provide Ireland with all of its energy needs.

The principal of wave-generated electricity is much the same as wind-power in that it uses a natural force to create kinetic energy. One factor that has allowed wind to take the lead over wave power, however, is the damage waves have done to the machinery created to harness their power, something that may now be a thing of the past.

“Original designs had fixed devices that created resistance with the water but ours floats on top of it and moves with the waves,” says Andrew Parish, CEO of Wavebob. “It’s still creating some resistance with the waves but is not taking the full force of it all the time.”

On the surface the Wavebob device is effectively a yellow bouy but underneath the water line it is quite a large and device. Not only does it move with the water to reduce damage, it can also react to strong wave patterns and adjust to protect itself.

According to Parish, Ireland could generate all of its electricity needs from wave power alone and depending on the scale of the wave farm being developed it can pay for itself within as little as three years.

“The west coast could provide a huge amount of electricity for Ireland,” he says. “The most expensive set-up cost is the sub-marine line running the power back to shore so you would have to have a number of devices to make that financially viable.”

Parish says the actual bouys used to generate electricity at sea can be built quite quickly and have a good life span, assuming they are well maintained.

If wave power units can be deployed successfully it would have one very distinct advantage over the wind-based alternative, according to Parish. While wind turbines have incurred the ire of many who see them as an eye-sore, wave generation units are far smaller and placed much further out to sea than off-shore wind farms.

“They need to operate in deep-sea so they would be much further out than wind farms,” says Parish. “If you could see them at all they would just be dots on the horizon – they’re no more obtrusive than a small fishing boat.”

At the moment Wavebob have successfully tested their unit in Galway and have applied for a licence that will allow them to establish a commercial wave farm off the west coast of Ireland. There is also an international aspect to the company, with Wavebob having links in the USA which could put it at the forefront of the international wave energy market.

“A lot of countries are looking into this technology as a solution to their energy needs and they’re starting to look with envy at us,” says Parish. “Ireland has the potential to become a world leader and already some of the biggest names in the sector are Irish.”

Wind / Spirit Of Ireland

Ireland has already taken steps into the wind power arena but new company Spirit of Ireland proposes to take things to the next level, turning the country into a net exporter of electricity generated by wind turbines.

The Spirit of Ireland proposition is not just standard wind-power generation on a large scale – it aims to generate energy through wind that will push water uphill into reservoirs, providing a source of hydro-electric power when the water is allowed to travel back downhill.

The extra step may seem illogical but according to the company it has its reasons:

“[Wind] is difficult to predict, intermittent, variable in strength, often there when not required and not there when required. It creates instabilities in the power network and is very difficult for network operators to dispatch,” states the pitch on the Spirit of Ireland website.

The problem with many forms of alternative energy is the inability to store it in large capacities. Businesses and homes can use capacitors to some extent but for the kind of large-scale generation that would be required for national power consumption this is not practical. The Spirit of Ireland company says that by using wind energy to “stockpile” hydro storage reservoirs, the water can be released on demand and in a manageable way.

The project is more than just a little ambitious. It claims its proper deployment could save the country €30bn in imported fossil fuels, generate €50bn in revenue from energy exporting and create thousands of jobs for the entire country. The group believes it can build its first plant within five years and says it will transform Ireland once that happens.

Of course such a massive project does not come cheap – Spirit of Ireland estimates the infrastructural project will require a €10bn investment but obviously argues this can be recouped very quickly once it is completed.

A side-effect of the development that would not be as easy to resolve would be the impact on the environment the wind farms and hydro storage reservoirs would have. While the company argues there are already natural craters on the west coast that could be used for water storage turning them into damns would impact on their aesthetics and make them a no-go area for climbers and walkers.

Of course the whole development is still in its infancy and details given by the company appear to be aspirational so far. If it is going to gain public, and critically state, support it will need to prove that the people and technology behind it is sound and reliable.

Biomass / Biomass Heating Solutions

It may not be applicable to many businesses but the growth of biomass energy generation is using natural waste to solve two problems at once for farms and agricultural companies.

One of the most troublesome by-products for many companies, especially those with a lot of animals, is the waste they generate on a daily basis. In the past the only option for dealing with this waste was to spread it on unused patches of land owned by the farmer or company, creating an environmental issue which made the land useless for a number of years.

Due to the hazardous chemicals that can be released by this practice there have been many changes in the regulation of it in recent years, and it is now harder and more expensive to do than ever.

This is where companies like Biomass Heating Solutions Ltd come into play:

“We offer a safe and money-saving way for companies to do away with their waste,” says Jack O’Connor, managing director of Biomass. “It can have a pay-back time of just a few years and has numerous advantages.”

The biomass systems are built on-site, meaning the material can be disposed of without being transported anywhere first. It is then used to heat water and can provide all of the heating for a facility under the right circumstances.

Not only does this process remove the need for the waste to be spread it also strips it of the harmful chemicals that create the environmental issues in the first place. After the material has been used to generate heat it leaves behind just an ash that has its own uses.

“All that’s left in the ash is phosphorous and nitrogen which there’s actually a demand for in fertilizing,” says O’Connor. “Ireland is a net importer of these chemicals so it can save money in that way too.”

Of course it is not just animal waste that can be included in the biomass process as the technology also covers the likes of plant and wood burning. As the process invloves the burning of material it does release greenhouse gases but given the chemicals it removes from the environment it is seen as a green alternative overall.

Solar water heating / Genersys Ireland

Given its recent run of bad Summer weather, Ireland may not seem like the best place for solar power but according to providers it can at the very least cut heating bills, even if it does not eliminate them completely.

While sunny climates naturally get the most out of solar panels, which are used to heat water and even generate electricity, any kind of daylight is enough to cater for anything from 30% of a household’s heating needs upwards.

“On a good day you can provide more than enough heat for an average-sized household but even on bad days you can take away some of the cost,” says David Cooper of Genersys Ireland. “What would happen is the solar power brings the water up to a certain temperature and then the standard heating system kicks in to bring it up the rest of the way.”

The only real imposition on a household or business deploying solar energy for heating purposes is the water storage that is required to make it work. For a house, this can mean putting a 200 litre copper tank in place to store enough water for daily usage. For a business it would naturally be much higher.

Solar energy does have a slightly longer pay-back time than most technologies tend to boast, usually coming in at the 10 year mark, which is why a good warranty is often vital to ensure you get your money’s worth.

“When it comes to water storage the best thing is to have more storage space than you’re likely to need, which lets you carry some over from good days into bad,” says Cooper. “It can take some time to pay for itself but as oil prices go up and efficiency of the systems increases that will reduce significantly.”

Geo-thermal

One form of energy and heat generation that has only begun to gain a reputation is geo-thermal, where heat is extracted from underground for use in spacial heating. Interestingly the technique is actually one of the oldest forms of renewable energy with evidence of its deployment stretching back thousands of years.

As the earth absorbs solar rays, and due to the chemical reactions occouring underground on a constant basis, the underground temperature is generally higher than at ground-level. Geo-thermal heat generation works by placing a network of water pipes below the ground and using a heat pump to extract the hot water that is created.

The end result can be used to heat houses or buildings or even generate electricity, although this application is more expensive.

The obvious imposition to people wishing to deploy geo-thermal systems is the excavation work that must take place in order to lay the pipes, for that reason alone it is arguably more practical to new builds. It can be more expensive system to deploy than others for this reason and Sustainable Energy Ireland gives them a pay-back time of 8-10 years with a life expectency of 20 years.

Unlike with wind and wave Ireland is not exactly best-placed to become a mass generator of geo-thermal systems either, as it has its best results at the edges of tectonic plates.

However even in areas where the underground temperature is not significant it can still prove warmer than winter air and unlike other forms of green energy it has a reliable flow of heat and energy generation regardless of the weather or time of year. In Ireland the temperature several metres down is generally between 11c and 13c.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Green Business Supplement of Business & Finance in April 2009.

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