Q&A With Martin McAdams, CEO, Aquamarine Power

Wave power technology has existed for more than a century, but so far it hasn’t caught on like wind and solar power. Is there reason to believe that this is a breakthrough moment for wave energy?

MM: One challenge for wave power and for ocean power more generally is the nature of the environment we’re trying to access. The ocean is a rough, unpredictable place and it’s taken a long time for the technology to evolve to be able to work well enough in the water. Most of the early attempts required engineering, software, control systems, and materials that simply didn’t exist. A major breakthrough happened in the ‘70s with Salter’s Duck [a revolutionary, highly efficient wave power generator developed by British engineer Stephen Salter], which showed people for the first time that you could take innovative concepts for wave energy machines and actually deploy them at sea. And in the past several decades we’ve learned a lot from offshore oil and gas drilling about working in a marine environment. Plus, we’re at a moment when concerns about climate change and rising fuel prices have generated new interest in renewable energy. Wind and solar energy can’t provide all the power we need–there has to be a broader portfolio of renewable technologies. So the time seems right for wave energy to take the next step.

Several companies are developing wave power technologies. Your device, the Oyster, is essentially a rotating metal sheet that moves with the waves and uses the motion to pump seawater at high pressure to hydroelectric generators on shore. What’s the advantage of the Oyster compared to other devices?

MM: What we put in the water is the simplest possible configuration of hydraulic pump we can make. The part that’s in the water is just a simple pump. The more complex, electricity generating equipment is all on shore. Other technologies, by nature of what they’re trying to do, make it more complex. The Pelamis device [a tubular, machine consisting of sausage-like links] produces electricity within the actual machine, so there’s a lot of delicate equipment inside. There’s also been a lot written about buoy technology, but buoys only capture energy from the up and down motion of waves. Waves are more complex–they have a horizontal as well as a vertical component. So buoys are not very efficient. The Oyster, by contrast, is by its nature very efficient. Another advantage is that it won’t shut down in storms. The apparatus is hinged to the sea bed and even the most powerful storm will just wash right over the top.

Scotland is home to many of the world’s most advanced wave power companies, including, besides Aquamarine, Pelamis and Wavegen. How did Scotland come to be a center of wave energy?

MM: The Scottish government has gone out of its way to encourage the wave power industry. The Scottish economy was once based on heavy engineering, mainly ship building, but that’s largely gone away and been replaced by things life life sciences and information technology. But Scotland still has a good amount of manufacturing capability for building and installing large devices. Combine that infrastructure with unlimited wave resources and you have the perfect conditions for developing a wave power industry. The Scottish government has probably been the most proactive in the world in relation to marine energy. It’s put in place support programs that offer companies like ours grants to help with the fabrication and installation of devices. The government has also been very helpful in facilitating the development of supply chains and building port infrastructure. This September the government is holding it’s second annual Scottish Low Carbon Investment conference. So the atmosphere in Scotland is very encouraging for renewable energy of all types, including wave power.

That’s quite a contrast to the United States, where the federal government hasn’t done or been able to do much to encourage long-term investment in renewable energy technologies. What can or should the US do to encourage renewable energy along the lines of Scotland and elsewhere in Europe?

MM: As I see it, there are two main energy challenges in the United States. One is from an energy usage perspective. The U.S. has approximately 6% of the world’s population but uses nearly 25% of the world’s energy. So the primary challenge for the U.S. government is to encourage efficiency. This doesn’t necessarily mean using less total energy, but it does mean using energy more wisely. The second main challenge is cost. Most American consumers might not agree with me, but energy in the U.S. is actually very cheap compared to Europe. But cheap energy is not always going to be there, especially if near total dependence on fossil fuels continues. As we saw in the ‘70s and as we’ve seen more recently, volatility in the pricing of oil and other fossil fuels can cause huge economic shocks. In Europe, governments are beginning to factor volatility into the price of energy by encouraging renewables, where the the bulk of the cost is up front in developing infrastructure [i.e. building wind and solar farms] but the fuel is free. I think the U.S. would be wise to think more about how to insulate the country from energy price shocks. And that means doing more to change its energy portfolio. There’s a decent amount of wind development in the States, and growing solar development. I think wave power can be an important part of the mix. The west coast of the United States has enormous potential. Developing wave energy there, as we’re in the process of doing in Oregon, can help the country balance it’s energy portfolio and be a major contributor to GDP. It’s important to not underestimate the economic potential of wave power and other renewables for any economy.

Check out more of my writing and excerpts from my book-in-progress on renewable energy at www.renewablebook.com

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I'm a writer based in Bloomington, IN. I'm currently writing a book about renewable energy, titled "Renewable: A Reporter's Quest to Make Sense of the Coming Revolution in Alternative Energy," for St. Martin's Press.

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