Ocean Energy – future opportunities for Europe’s mining industries?

Speaking at the International Conference on New Technologies and Policies for Mining and Mining Products on 9 March in Dublin, Nicolas Wallet, Manager of The Technology & Innovation Platform for Ocean Energy, drew a picture of the direction in which this next generation renewable energy sector is heading, which included a sizable opportunity for innovative thinking on materials. 

European technologies have been the driving force by the global movement which has brought the ocean renewable energy sector1 to the brink of commercialisation. To date, several European technologies have generated over large numbers of megawatt hours of electricity into national girds, proving that the concept is sound. 

When this global advantage can be turned into reality will depend on how quickly the sector reduce costs and drive down the price of its product: electricity. TP Ocean – the European Technology & Innovation Platform for Ocean Energy – was created in 2013 to ensure that this happens in the most cost efficient and timely manner, by generating consensus around research priorities for the sector.

Between now and 2020, as the first arrays (or farms) of ocean energy devices are deployed, the journey down the cost curve will begin through a mixture of innovation, learning by doing and the economies of scale which go with volume production. Materials are central to this issue of cost.

Ocean energy devices need to be robust enough to survive and operate in a high-energy and often volatile environment (the sea). The larger they are the more economically viable they become, as we have seen with offshore wind turbines reaching 160m in diameter. The devices must also be ‘marinised’, meaning resistant to corrosion, bio-fouling and waterproof to the extent that they can survive and function at optimal levels.

Reducing the cost of production, while maintaining each of these characteristics, is a key goal for the sector. Today, the predominant structure of these devices is made from steel, which is well understood and durable, but expensive. 

Solutions are being explored:  cheaper materials are used in some instances, such as concrete. High quality materials such as fibre reinforced polymer can used for parts under extreme stress. The scale issue can be tackled by using a minimalized structure for mounting multiple turbines to. 

Knowledge transfer from other sectors has been identified by TP Ocean as a high effective innovation pathway to be explored. Composite materials and antifouling coatings used in the shipping industry represent low hanging fruits for cost reduction. Already today, several innovations from within the shipping industry, such as sea-water lubricated bearings are being explored. Similarly, there is a great dealing of existing knowledge to build on in the area of moorings of foundations, which is of fundamental importance to the sector. 

Radical new concepts are needed, however: Removing the need for large foundation structures, and making greater use of buoyant, tensioned cables, for example. The substitution of steel with a less costly and equally performing alternative would represent a breakthrough innovation for the sector.

Given its current technological dominance, and the abundance of global resources, there are few sectors which represent as much employment and export potential for Europe as ocean energy. All this while removing imported fossil fuels from the grid and replacing them with clean, secure energy. The combination of these elements has driven ocean energy considerably high on the EU agenda in the past two years, leading to the creation of the European Commission’s ‘Ocean Energy Forum’. This Forum has been tasked with creating a roadmap for the development of the sector and uniting relevant EU countries under a common, strategic plan. On implementation, this plan will be of great benefit to those who are well positioned to support its development with innovative, cost effective solutions.

Ocean Energy Europe

Mr. Nicolas Wallet
Ocean Energy Europe

1 The renewable ocean energy sector is made up of five technologies: wave energy, tidal stream, tidal range, salinity gradient energy conversion, and ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC)