Making the sea our servant, not our master
Harnessing renewable, clean energy from the sea is not just speculation at the Wave Energy Centre on the Azores, Portugal. The WavEC is leading the way in understanding and developing wave power at its experimental power plant on Pico Island, part of the Azores, Portugal, which was first established in the mid-nineties and taken over by WavEC in 2004. Today the centre, which is a private, non-profit-making association, comprises 15 associate bodies, including engineering and construction companies and research organisations.
“Since the beginning of 2010, the Pico plant has certainly generated more energy than any other wave energy device in Europe."
Ana Brito-Melo, WavEC
The Pico site was identified as having the maximum natural advantages for wave power. The plant is located at Cachorro, where the depth of water in a rock gulley combines to produce high wave energy levels. This is complemented by the plant being accessible by road and linked to an electricity grid connection point.
Tenacity in research
The first project was initiated in 1992 and was achieved through EU funding in conjunction with the Portuguese government and joint financial support from the national and regional energy suppliers EDP and EDA. It focused on supplying a small power grid, making it particularly relevant for local power generation in remote locations. This project ran until 1999, but was repeatedly beset with technical problems. A further period of testing ran between 2005 and 2007, and here again the technical challenges inherited from the original project, together with a budget too tight for the challenge, prevented the plant from working satisfactorily.
By 2008, researchers were once again in a position to take the work forward and a new contract with EDP under a Portuguese consortium was signed. This project took a very clear view on the challenges to be overcome and made useful progress, although rising costs and the effects of concrete damage forced its suspension. WavEC decided to continue the work within its own financial means and with support from the technical partners Kymaner and Efacec. Substantial improvements were achieved in 2009, making it possible to achieve autonomous full-rated-power operation by early 2010.
The Pico plant shows how scientific progress is built on adversity and the need for long-term commitment. The body of knowledge has been painstakingly built up over 18 years and has helped substantially in creating the scientific reputation of the Centre.
Demonstrating growing expertise
Pico remains the most important asset for the WavEC and has generated the most energy of any wave-based device in Europe. With continued funding there is the potential to achieve a unique commercial renewable energy source and to continue informing the scientific community. It is a vital part of technology transfer in this field of science and as desirable side-effect also generates significant tourist interest in the island.
Today the Centre is involved in a growing range of collaborative research and often acts as technical consultant for maritime renewable energy projects. The EC project Equimar benefits from WavEC’s expertise in its testing of marine energy extraction equipment and environmental R&D, while wavetrain2 provides an EU training network programme coordinated by the Centre. The future viability of the Centre remains strong and the lesson of the last 18 years is that repeated experimentation and problem-solving is the only genuine way forward in this exciting but unpredictable field. There are no quick fixes to harnessing the energy of the sea, but plenty of reasons to expect great returns in the future.