Alstom, a French global engineering firm very active in nuclear, has been expanding into the renewables space through both internal projects and acquisitions. This week the company said it was purchasing a 40% stake in the Scottish wave developer AWS Ocean Energy, bringing some industrial strength to a sector in dire need of capital and technical help.
Alstom has already been working to develop a 1 MW hydrokinetic tidal turbine (pictured right) with Clean Current in France. The latest investment gives the company access to AWS’ R&D work on a 2.5 MW wave converter.
On the surface, this is a positive story about an industrial heavyweight getting into a promising renewable energy sector. But it says as much about problems in the wave energy sector as it does about the immense potential of the resource.
Estimates from the International Energy Agency put the global potential for marine resources (wave, tidal, ocean thermal) at over 20,000 TWh per year — surpassing today’s global generation by 2 TWh. But so far, those resources have proven difficult to capture. There are only about 300 megawatts of such projects installed, and companies have been quiet about the actual electricity production from the mostly pilot-scale and pre-commercial devices.
Alstom says it plans to install somewhere around 100 MW of wave energy devices by 2020. Let’s put that into perspective: One of the largest power plant developers in the world says that it will deploy 100 MW of wave devices over the next 9 years. Compare that with the 17 GW (17,000 MW) of solar installed last year and the 35 GW of wind installed. China alone plans to install 50 GW of solar and 200 GW of wind by 2020.
What is holding marine energy back? Survivability. Many of these devices are being deployed in the harshest environments in the world — much of the equipment just can’t handle the stress. No company has yet figured out how to keep commercial-scale devices “healthy” over long periods of time. That makes them very expensive and capital intensive, so it’s been difficult for technology developers to secure financing or enter partnerships with well-capitalized energy companies. Dozens of announcements have been made for new technologies in recent years, with little to show for them.
That’s why this recent deal is significant. With a heavy hitter like Alstom providing needed support (joining Siemens, Shell, GE and others that have dipped their toes in the sector over the years), a technology developer like AWS will get a much-needed boost.
But unlike the wind and solar sectors where projects can be deployed in a matter of months, the marine renewables space isn’t going to explode any time soon.
Below are the earlier comments from the facebook commenting system:
I mentioned the slow pace of marine renewables to my father, a retired engineer. He immediately pointed to the 240 MW Rance tidal power station in France, which was completed in 1966 and is still turning out the power at a cheaper rate than nuclear installations. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rance_Tidal_Power_Station
Rance is a good example of the fact that very littleis required in the way of brand new innovation to make the switch to renewables. Wikipedia notes that there was an attempt to build a tidal power plant in France as early as 1925. Abandoned due to finance.
I have to say, I’ve been amazed at the degree to which power companies around the world HAVEN’T seized on the opportunities presented by renewable energy. If they could get around their rut-like mentality, companies that currently focus on coal power could become renewable giants, keep their monopoly, and keep charging the same amount for their electricity, while removing the costs associated with mining/purchasing fuel.
It’s not like they don’t have any money to invest in it…
They’re ideally situated for that kind of thing, but instead they’re clinging to what is old, familiar, and doomed. Sometimes it makes me want to have a conference between my forehead and my desk…