It’s not just the wind at the coast that is providing electricity to Flanders: Now researchers are looking to ocean waves as a possibility in generating renewable energy. Researchers are currently fine-tuning the Wave Pioneer device that will test how the waves of our moderate sea climate can be best converted into electricity.
FlanSea consortium is testing technology to develop wave energy at the Flemish coast
The project is being carried out by the FlanSea consortium, which unites Ghent University, the Ostend Port Authority and five Flemish companies – DEME Blue Energy, Cloostermans, Electrawinds, Spiromatic and Contec.
Right now, the Wave Pioneer is still in the harbour of Ostend, where researchers are making the last adjustments to its technology. By the middle of this month, you may be able to spot the device from the city’s promenade, floating in the water one kilometre out to sea.
The Wave Pioneer looks like a buoy of about 4.5 metres across and almost five metres high, which is anchored to the seabed by a steel cable. As the waves push it upwards, the steel cable moves on a winch inside the device, creating mechanical energy. This energy is converted into electricity by two generators.
The development of this prototype started in 2010, when the partners of FlanSea (short for Flanders Electricity from the Sea) received €2.4 million in funding from the government of Flanders, through its agency for Innovation through Science and Technology (IWT). The project requires a budget of €3.7 million. At the end of 2013, this trial phase should provide essential information on how to construct wave energy converters that can be connected to the energy network.
“The successors of the Wave Pioneer will be twice as wide,” declares professor Julien De Rouck of the civil technology research group at Ghent University. “They will be able to convert waves of half a metre to three metres high into electricity.” The goal is to design wave energy converters with a maximum capacity of about 100 kilowatt, enough to produce electricity for more than 50 Flemish households.
More and more countries are looking to the waves at their coasts for the production of sustainable energy, especially in places with rougher sea conditions. As surfers know, you can encounter powerfully high waves at the west coast of Ireland and Scotland and along the coast of Portugal. Outside of Europe, the United States, Japan and Australia, among others, are realising the potential. “These rougher conditions have the advantage that they generate a higher average of electricity production,” says De Rouck, the project’s leader. “But the tests also show that heavy storms seriously damage the devices. To make sure this technology can withstand the natural elements, the cost of their technology will probably be a lot higher than ours, which is adapted to a moderate sea climate.”
In tandem with wind
The maximum capacity of wave converters in the North Sea will be at least 20 times less than that of the wind turbines set up there. But De Rouck thinks that the converters will complement the activity of wind turbines. “By installing them at the offshore wind farms, we could make optimal use of the space available,” he says.
The converters could be integrated in the current energy network at wind farms and would provide a more continuous energy production “because waves still generate energy for a period after the wind power has decreased,” explains De Rouck. The maintenance of the floating devices will likely also be less costly than that of the huge wind turbines. The Otary consortium, which has obtained rights for the last zone available for a wind farm in the North Sea, are already convinced of the potential of wave converters. They are planning to install the devices at the wind farm, about 30 kilometres offshore, to be operational by about 2018.
The right time
Although the innovations in this research area have risen to the surface in recent years, the idea of converting waves into energy goes back decades. In the 1980s, professor Marc Vantorre of Ghent University’s maritime technology department – who also works on the FlanSea team –wrote a PhD on the subject. But it was only after 2000 that Master’s and PhD students accelerated the research process. From 2005 till 2009, professor De Rouck lead the European Seewec project on wave energy. “It seems that the time is now right,” he says.
The FlanSea consortium is preparing the continuation of the project, as the funding from the IWT only runs until the end of the year. De Rouck hopes that they can soon emphasise the development side – producing technology with commercial applications – while the focus until now has been on research.