It’s been a long and worldwide journey to get to the point where humans can harness the power of the waves and tides. A new initiative on the south coast of Western Australia might provide a proof of concept for wave power.
In years to come, visitors to Albany’s Historic Whaling Station in Western Australia could be looking straight into the future as well as the past.
The whaling station is earmarked for partnership with the Australian Ocean Energy Group (AOEG), an industry-led cluster, as a potential site for the world’s first integrated ocean energy marketplace.
The AOEG, with the support of UWA’s Marine Energy Research Australia (MERA) and Climate KIC Australia, is now in the feasibility stage of an ambitious project that plans to “mirror a commercial, integrated ocean energy system that generates and sells electricity to its customer”.
What visitors would actually see is a working renewable energy system in a small area off the spectacular coast of Albany, a range of ocean energy devices amid the waves, alongside solar and wind devices. Onshore, the plan is to include a desalination unit, a green hydrogen production unit and an energy storage unit to show the benefits of integrated renewable energy systems.
The “marketplace” will exist side-by-side with the whaling station, bringing an ocean story from the past together with one from the future. It will also be close to the Great Southern Marine Research Facility (GSMRF), a knowledge and innovation hub for Australia’s ocean renewable energy sector.
“It will be a regional project with a global outlook,” AOEG ocean energy program manager Alex Ogg says.
“It’s not so much showcasing devices and technology as looking at potential markets for ocean energy. We want the marketplace to be a forum for two-way engagement.
“Firstly, we will look at Australian customers and then perhaps the Asia-Pacific region. We would like to see this marketplace replicated. There could be branches around the world.
“The closest thing to this marketplace is the Marine Energy Centre at Orkney in Scotland, but that is a testing centre for devices to be analysed. The marketplace has different objectives, that is to make ocean energy highly visible. We will turn the spotlight on ocean energy market applications as well as opening up possibilities for commercial projects.
“Co-design of wave and tidal energy within offshore wind energy projects, and helping to provide freshwater to communities that have no other options, or only very expensive options, for example.”
Ogg says as well as appealing to commercial developers, facilitating research and bringing ocean energy to a public audience, the marketplace will aim to build support for the development and promotion of the ocean energy sector, including through government policy-makers.
Why ocean energy?
Oceans cover about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, a mass of water in almost constant motion.
“We would like to see this marketplace replicated. There could be branches around the world.”Alex Ogg
But ocean energy has remained a poor cousin to solar and wind energy, with hundreds of devices and ventures trialled across the globe, but few large-scale commercial projects. It remains an expensive option in its current, pre-commercial status.
While the CSIRO notes there are challenges to utilising ocean energy, it has greater predictability and availability than other renewable energy sources.
“Tides are predictable over all time-frames, and waves have a forecast horizon up to three times more than wind,” its official Ocean Energy website page states.
The Australian Wave Energy Atlas project, a three-year project by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the CSIRO finalised in 2018, found Australia’s total available wave energy resource was larger than 248 terrawatt hours (TW h) – the total amount of electricity generated across Australia in 2013-14.
“The vast majority of this resource is available to the southern coastal region with 1455 TW h/year estimated at the 25-m depth contour (the depth around which many wave devices are presently being tested), from 29°S on the Western Australian coast to 148°E on the southern tip of Tasmania including western Victoria,” the Wave Atlas Final Report stated.
The CSIRO said, following the study, that the southern coastline of Australia had a “great wave resource” thanks to consistently large waves and ideal conditions for wave energy production.
“Our research shows wave energy could contribute up to 11 per cent of Australia’s energy (enough to power a city the size of Melbourne) by 2050, making it a strong contender in Australia’s renewable energy mix,” CSIRO’s website says.
So why so slow?
Ogg recalls the sceptical approach to solar energy in the 1990s.
“The technology was available,” he says, “yet there was no demand for it.
“New technology like solar often takes decades for market adoption, but I would like to think it is not going to be another 20 years before we see wave and tidal energy coming into its own. Shortening this timeframe is the exact remit for AOEG and the marketplace is the tool to achieve this.”
Australian companies and researchers have been among those at the forefront of ocean energy technology. In 2021, Wave Swell Energy installed a wave energy unit at King Island, Tasmania, a world-first integration with existing wind, solar and diesel resources. Australian company Bombora is working on the 1.5MW Pembrokeshire Demonstration Project in Wales, using its newly developed technology. And in Western Australia, Marine Energy Research Australia – the body behind the research facility neighbouring the proposed marketplace location – is working on the M4 Project, a new wave energy converter.
The Australian Renewable Energy Agency website says all forms of energy from the ocean are still only at the nascent stages of commercialisation, and wave energy remains costly.
The first attempts at capturing wave energy stem back to France in the late 18th century and, since that time, wave and tidal energy systems have been developed in a huge range of sizes and shapes. Developers have continued to face the challenges of high costs and of building devices robust enough to survive the sea – technical consolidation is a fundamental step.
Ogg says there have been estimates that ocean energy will provide significant contributions to Australia’s renewable energy needs, but the percentages and timeframes vary from study to study.
“Australia is now hungry for energy transition solutions,” he says. “Making ocean energy visible – putting it on the map for both market end users and policy makers to understand – is a key step in accelerating both technical development and adoption of these renewable energy forms.”
At the moment, ocean energy is hardly a blip on Australia’s energy radar.
The Australian Ocean Energy Group was formed as a not-for-profit industry cluster funded by Climate-KIC Australia and National Energy Resources Australia in 2018 to drive collaborative innovation in the ocean energy sector, both in Australia and overseas.
Its members include technology developers such as Bombora, Altum Green Energy, Carnegie, Ingine, Wave Swell, Smart Barge, Northwest Energy Innovations, Onetide and EHL, along with researchers, consultants and a number of other organisations.
“I’d like to think it’s not going to be another 20 years before we see wave and tidal energy coming into its own”Alex Ogg
Ogg says it is expected the feasibility study for the Integrated Ocean Energy Marketplace project, currently underway in the hands of global energy consultants Xodus, will be followed by a digital platform and knowledge centre, and then the physical marketplace in Albany.
AOEG will seek both financial partners and working partners to make the marketplace a reality at this foundational stage – partners it believes share the vision for wave and tidal contributions to a decarbonised planet.
“We are looking to socialise the whole concept of ocean energy,” Ogg says. “We want this marketplace to be the catalyst for commercial projects, for developers to understand what an optimised energy system could look like and how it could work on their foreshore.
“There is no place in the world where there is a consolidated base of knowledge and data to explain how this works; to understand the cost/benefits of ocean energy.
“This will be not just an attraction, but will put the spotlight on Albany as an innovation hub. Having a research centre almost adjacent extends the appeal of the physical site. It advances that need for knowledge.
“The end game is to show the possibilities of integrated renewable energy and work with project developers on the design, costs and even the supply of integrated energy systems.”
Ogg says as ocean energy progresses around the world, it is time to present it as an integral part of new offshore energy projects, and to look at ocean energy to enable desalination projects. He says it is time to look at synergies with deep sea aquaculture, and consider the possibilities for ports and harbours and offshore platforms, as the oil and gas industry looks to decarbonise its production.
“It will happen, but it is anybody’s guess how long it will take,” he says. “And that’s our pressure point. We need to find the visionaries who can see the limitless potential and collectively help catalyse the next stages of adoption.
“Initially, we’ll focus on Blue Economy markets, places where energy is already expensive, unreliable and carbon heavy.”
In the interim, AOEG continues to work towards a visible integrated energy system that will bring tourists, researchers and developers together on a site that both marks the end of the whale hunting era and the beginning of another, more sustainable energy era.
To watch a video about the Integrated Ocean Energy Marketplace project and learn more, visit their website.
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Marie Low has been a journalist and communications advisor for more than 30 years. She has also worked as a media advisor to state government ministers, headed a government media department and worked within a well-regarded metropolitan communications consultancy as a senior consultant. Her family tree change brought her to Tenterfield and then Gunnedah where she now is one half of Two Cats Creative.