When AWS Ocean Energy located to the Scottish Highlands in its quest to develop the world’s most efficient, reliable wavepower device, it was primarily for dispassionate, commercial reasons.
But the people behind AWS also take a more personal, vocational approach to renewable technology and its socio-economic contribution.
And, through that combination of practicality and passion, the Inverness-based marine energy company has taken its development programme from a concept-proving prototype to the verge of producing a high output, commercial scale device, fit for use offshore by big power utilities.
The development process has involved a determined, practical vision, persistent technological innovation, considerable private sector partnership and invaluable public sector support.
AWS was created in Holland in the 1990s but decided to move, in 2004, to a more advantageous environment to develop and commercialise its technology.
Operations director Graham Bibby explained: “In Holland, there is no real wavepower, nor the necessary market pull or other support but, on the other hand, Scotland has up to five per cent of the world’s wavepower potential. The Scottish Government provides very strong encouragement and backing for renewables development and is determined to lead the world in marine energy.
Then, when you take into account the business, research, finance, skills and other resources available here, it was a natural location in which to take the programme through the demanding process of development, trialling and commercialisation.
That complex process has seen the company develop its wavepower device through a series of evolutionary design stages before looking to embark on its full-scale development phase.
Underlying this programme has been a consistent vision: to produce the best wavepower device for use at a power utility scale, providing the lowest risks, lowest costs and highest efficiencies.
Each stage of development has harnessed the original design principle in which a cylinder of air, or diaphragm, drives an electric turbine by being compressed by the weight of waves and expanding in the wave troughs.
The original AWS I device used one big diaphragm. It was tested off the Portuguese coast in 2004 and, in a pioneering move at that time, linked into Portugal’s electricity grid.
Using lessons learned, the company developed and tested AWS II before moving to a one-ninth scale version of AWS III, now comprising a ring of 12 diaphragms and extensively trialled in the nearby waters of the massive Loch Ness. It is this version that will be scaled-up to full size or 60 metres in diameter.
Before constructing the full device, AWS will first have one of its full-scale diaphragms built and then tested in the Cromarty Firth.
In the final development stage, they aim to launch the complete 12-diaphragm demonstrator device rated at 2.5 Megawatts (MW) – similar to a large wind turbine’s capacity – by 2012 and then to have a 10MW pre-commercial wave farm of four generators operating in 2014.
In keeping with our vision, we have constantly challenged ourselves at every stage of the device’s evolution before looking to demonstrate and prove its technology at commercial scale,” said Graham Bibby.
We do believe that the latest version, the AWS III, is a step change up from most of what is currently available in the marketplace.
We took in some generic components, instead of trying to develop several new solutions in parallel, and concentrated on our key technologies to achieve the best solution in terms of economics, reliability, safety and power density.
The result will be a multi-megawatt device whose advantages include having no working parts exposed to the sea. Power, as compressed air, comes straight from the diaphragm movement, avoiding the complexities of hydraulic or electro-mechanical systems.
We also believe that the AWS Mark III’s power to weight ratio is around twice as good as other leading concepts, while its modular design reduces construction costs.
The result is a very low-risk, reliable device which is large and stable for maintenance access. We would expect its commercial energy production costs to be about half those predicted for other known concepts.
AWS Ocean Energy’s development programme has attracted some £7.5 million of private sector capital, from its founders and from a range of investment organisations and development partners. Commercial investors include RAB Capital, Tersus Energy and the Tudor Group, as well as the Shell Technology Ventures Fund, managed by Dutch-based Kenda Capital. A local business shareholder is Cromarty Firth-based engineering company, Isleburn.
Public sector investment has included assistance from regional development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) who provided the company’s original premises in Alness, Easter Ross, before AWS http://www.awsocean.com moved to a high-tech facility close to Inverness harbour.
National agency Scottish Enterprise (SE) leveraged some of the private sector investment through its Scottish Co-Investment Fund and both HIE and SE are partners with the Scottish Government in the WATERS fund (Wave and Tidal Energy: Research, Development and Support), which injected £1.39 million to the project in summer 2010. The UK Government’s Carbon Trust and its Technology Strategy Board have also supported or invested in AWS.
The company works closely with Strathclyde University’s leading UK power industry research team, whose engineering and other inputs include valuable test tank facilities and commercialisation expertise.
The company’s development in the Scottish Highlands, where it currently employs14 people, including engineers and other specialists, brings strong mutual benefits, says Graham Bibby.
We want to play our part to ensure that this region and Scotland will see positive, sustainable returns,
For instance, as the wave energy power utility side develops offshore, we will see a major contribution to Scotland’s carbon footprint targets. Developing the technology here makes the region and country smarter and generates local employment, while the economy will also gain from exports of locally-owned technology and specialist equipment.