DUBLIN -- Call it the joy of engineering.
There is such a thing, and it is at its peak when engineers face a challenge unfettered by politics or marketing. Money is frequently a problem, and sometimes part of the challenge.
Ocean power is an engineer’s dream, where seemingly all things are possible.
At the semi-annual International Conference on Ocean Energy, held here this year, unfettered, engineering is the driver. One participant told me, “This is a sandbox for engineers to play in.”
Since the beginning of time man has dreamed of the challenge of harnessing the power of the oceans, with their currents, tides and waves. It was talked about seriously during the energy crisis of the 1970s, and then largely forgotten.
In the early years of the alternative energy industry, engineers enthused about the tidal rise of Canada’s Bay of Fundy and France’s Bay of Biscay as sources of power. Ocean power is more energy dense than wind power. But when it was apparent that no single machine could be developed to generate ocean power, enthusiasm waned. Wind turbines can be standardized, but currents, tides and waves are a site-specific energy source.
As a result wind, solar, geothermal and biomass got the alternative energy development attention and the bulk of the funding. Ocean energy stayed in the speeches, a gleam in the eye of a small group of developers scattered around seafront nations.
Now there is an ocean energy movement. In more than 20 countries, private companies are developing first-generation water turbines.
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The United States, once the laggard, is catching up rapidly in both technology and deployment, according to Sean O’Neill, president of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition, the Washington-area trade association that represents developers working with 34 different concepts in the United States alone. Recently, O’Neill said, big companies like Lockheed Martin, SAIC and Chevron, have joined the ranks of the developers.
The race is joined, and maritime nations like Ireland want part of the action.
Kevin McCarthy of Enterprise Ireland, a government-backed, trade- development agency, said, “Ireland missed out on becoming part of the supply chain for wind power, but we have great expertise in ocean technology and services. And Ireland wants to be a fundamental part of the supply chain for ocean power development.”
What makes it an almost pure engineering play is that there is no dominant technology, just groups of applications determined by locations like rivers and intermittent and varying conditions, including fast currents and slow currents, shallow tides and deep tides, shallow waves and deep waves.
Anyone who has ever jumped into the waves can imagine how all sorts of devices would bob, dip, circle and twirl in them. The trick is to make a machine that will capture the energy, convert it to electricity and ship it ashore.
Experts say there are 134 designs being worked on or tested. There are tests underway in New York’s East River and in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Florida, Washington and Oregon and Hawaii.
The machines vary widely and wildly, ranging from windmills to bobbing buoys, developed by a Texas company, Neptune Wave Power, which rely on a pendulum, like that in a self-winding watch, to wobble around in the waves without much supervision or maintenance.
The largest operating tidal turbine is in Strangford Lough, in County Down, Northern Ireland . This machine, big at 1.2 megawatts, looks like a twin-engined propeller plane that has had the wings cut off at the engines and then lowered into the water.
Other designs use paddles and panels on hinges, which move back and forth, some in the waves and some in tides. Where the water moves, engineers want to harness it.
“It’s a pure engineering play,” said Bill Staby, founder and chief executive officer of Boston-based Resolute Marine Energy. Staby, a former investment banker, is one of a few developers who see a use for ocean power other than making electricity. His company has a contract with South Africa, and is working with other African governments and localities, to develop water desalination plants using wave power to drive a conventional, off-the-shelf desalination plant, cutting out the expense of electricity or diesel engines.
More than 900 engineers came to Dublin to dream and discuss extraordinary designs. Ocean power is in the place where autos were in the early part of the 20th century: no idea is dominant and no concept, however out of the ordinary, is ridiculed. There is a new frontier in the oceans.
In an era where alternative energy is a political favorite, it is strange that the waves, so familiar to all, have had so little attention. For engineers, it’s time to “go down to the seas again,” as John Masefield wrote romantically. Engineering can be a romantic business.
By. Llewellyn King
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle”
on PBS. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.