Ireland’s ambitions to become a world leader in wave energy

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“We’re fond of saying in the sector that we’re 90% under water…only 10% of Ireland’s territory is land. I’ve worked it out as 40 or 50 acres for every man, woman and child in Ireland”. I’ve accidentally stumbled upon one of James Ryan’s favourite topics as we travel in his car on the remote Mullet Peninsula along Ireland’s far western coast.  “What are we doing with it? Absolutely zilch. Two percent of our economy is based on the sea and that takes into account marine transport, which is the bulk of it really,” he adds in mild exasperation. But changes are afoot. Ryan is Managing Director of Aquavision Ltd, a local company that provides services in marine project development. He also represents the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), a semi-state body promoting the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures across the country.

Atlantic Marine Energy Test Site

We’re on our way to visit the closest point on land to the proposed Atlantic Marine Energy Test Site (AMETS) off the coast of Annagh Head, where the waves regularly reach 15 to 16 metres in height further offshore. Earlier in his office at Aras Inis Gluaire in Belmullet, he pointed out the test sites indicated by post-it notes on a large map of the area. “In the 100-metre depth zone, we have one site that is about 6 or 7 miles out to sea and then we have an intermediate test site at the 50-metre depth. We’re now also looking at the possibility of a near shore test site”. AMETS is the most ambitious initiative to date to position Ireland as a heavyweight contender for the development of marine energy globally. The purpose of this 10MW facility is to provide a full-scale open ocean test and demonstration facilities for private companies that are developing wave energy conversion technology. This will allow Ireland to challenge Scotland’s European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) based in the Orkney Islands on the basis that the Irish site is the most energy intensive of all. The walls of his office are lined with illustrations of various wave energy convertors with names like ‘Wave Bob’ and ‘Pelamis’ and ‘Aquamarine’, the owners of which are eagerly waiting to test the survivability and reliability of their technologies in the harsh Atlantic conditions. “At the moment we already have a quarter-scale test site in Galway Bay…we also have tank testing facilities down in UCC [University College Cork],” he explains. But AMETS is a potential game-changer for Ireland. According to a recent study by the SEAI, the Irish ocean energy industry could support 17,000 to 52,000 jobs and contribute €4-10 billion to the economy by 2030.

Visual impact

We finally arrive at the western tip of Annagh Head and take a short stroll to a rocky promontory where sheep are grazing nearby. The sea conditions are unusually flat on this July day and so there’s no dramatic footage of breaking waves to support SEAI claims of the best wave resource in all of Europe. Ryan singles out a buoy situated within the intermediate test site zone. I trained my camera lens at maximum focal length (200mm) to enlarge the structure that can only just be seen with the naked eye. “That buoy is 6 metres high”, he tells me. It becomes clear to me from looking at the illustrations of wave energy convertors in his office and the distance I could now observe, that visual impact was unlikely to be a pressing concern. Despite the absence of any dwellings in the vicinity, a local farmer still happened to seek us out on our brief stopover. The conversation was amicable but it was clear that local people want to know what’s going on in their patch and can understandably be mistrustful of outsiders (even those of us who come from the county).

Engaging communities

“We were aware from what had happened with the Corrib gas project [a controversial processing plant and pipeline under construction by Shell nearby] that there may have been another way of doing things at the early stages. So we were determined that noone was going to be surprised by any of our developments, they were going to know well in advance. As one fella said to me, ‘Jesus you’ve been talking about this for a very long time. Would you ever just go ahead and build the shagging things?’” The SEAI submitted its foreshore lease application and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government in December 2011, which was followed by an 8-week public consultation. Now they are playing the waiting game until the Minister decides whether to provide the green light. Ryan is somewhat critical of government bureaucracy and “inertia in the regulatory side of things”.  One of the reasons that Scotland is so far ahead of Ireland in developing marine energy to date is that, “they have developed the concept of the one-stop-shop where the developer just goes to particular government office in Scotland…and a decision is provided within 6 or 12 months of application”.

Changing policy

But the Managing Director of Aquavision admits that things are now changing in Ireland. “I actually hosted Enda Kenny here before he became Taoiseach [Prime Minister of Ireland] and he was genuinely, completed energized, pardon the pun, by the concept [of wave energy]. It’s difficult in these times where you’re cutting back investment in hospitals, in public health…and yet we’re going to invest €20 million in a project that isn’t going to bring any real return for 10-15 years”. Herein lies the crux of the problem with the development of marine renewable energy; venture capitalists and traditional investors typically expect a payback within 5 years. Ryan believes that there is a real need for intervention at State level in order to take on risk that private entities are unwilling to, especially over the longer term. In his own words, “The way there’s State involvement in the Space programme, it should be the same with regards to marine energy”.

Future for wave power

So how far away are we from developing wave energy to the point where it can start to have a real impact on energy security and carbon emissions? Often when I’ve talked to local people in Ireland and the UK who are opposed to wind energy, the Great White Hope mentioned on many occasions is that we should be harnessing the power of the ocean instead of building wind farms. “I think wave power has a long way to go in the development of the technology. It could be the late 2030s before we see any scale in wave farms,” he relays to me soberly. “I‘ve been involved with the sector itself for the last 7 years…now most people acknowledge we’re not going to meet any targets [for wave energy] that we’ve set for 2020 or 2030.” To put this in context, the 10MW AMETS project, one of the largest of its kind anywhere, has a potential output equivalent to just two or three modern wind turbines. By implication, wind farms are clearly going to need to play a vital role in our attempts to mitigate climate change in the short to medium term (and perhaps longer).

At this point, we’ve arrived at our second destination, the point where the two 10kV marine cables come ashore at Belderra Strand to feed into the grid. Again, it’s a lovely stretch of coast, largely deserted except for a few nearby bungalows. He points to a flattish hill to indicate where the substation will be positioned. The photomontages I saw earlier in his office show a berm or ridge around the single-storied structure to minimize visual impact. “There’s not going to be pylons so they’re going to be the same sort of poles that are here already. There’s just going to be a few more of them,” he tells me referring to plans to develop the electricity grid.

Implications for Climate Change

As we drive back to his office in Belmullet, I enquire about his views on where climate change stands in the bigger scheme of things. “For me personally, it’s huge. For me, its like the astronomers have spotted an asteroid coming towards the earth and they’ve told everyone, it’s coming in 10 or 15 years time and we’re doing nothing about it. And that effectively is what climate change is. I tend to be skeptical by nature. I’ve a good training in skepticism. But climate change is happening and it’s being caused by the activities of Man.”

Ryan believes that there is a potential dividend for the community in that it adds to the profile of the region in terms of being a real player in developing renewable energy technology. “The concept we have is that if we get this facility set up, there’ll be lots of links with colleges, research facilities. If we look at what has happened in the Orkneys when they developed there. Hundreds of jobs generated from all the spin off”. Battered by wind, wave and squally showers, North Mayo is a region scarred by emigration and unemployment, not just in recent times, but across entire centuries. Now a chance exists to harness the brute force of Nature, of turning climate into an ally that will help benefit local communities and appease the effects of man-made climate change.

This is the second in a series of stories that explores energy and landscape in Mayo – a rural county in the West of Ireland where I grew up. View the first story here - Could wind replace bog as a more sustainable energy resource in Mayo?

Useful links -

SEAI ocean energy webpage

Aquavision website

AMETS foreshore lease application