Wavebob: Generating Power from the Movement of Waves

Wavebob is a device that floats in the sea and converts the movement of waves into electricity. The average electrical output of an individual unit is around 500 Kilowatts. That is enough energy to provide power for three to four hundred houses every day. A small city such as Galway, with just over 25,000 households, would only require a wave farm of between eighty and a hundred Wavebobs to provide it with sufficient electricity for its domestic needs.

According to SETIS, the European Commission’s information system for strategic energy technology, wave generated energy could supply Europe with roughly 1% of its power requirements by 2020.

Wavebob was founded Irish physicist William Dick in 1999. By 2007 it became apparent that the company needed to scale to be able to bring the product to a commercial reality. It was at this point that Andrew Parish, an environmental chemist who had worked in the public and private sectors and who at the time was running his own management consultancy joined Wavebob to help create and lead the management team.

How did things look in 2007?

“I joined at a time when we had just had our first sea trials in Galway Bay. We had started to attract some international attention by virtue of the fact that we had a sea-going demonstrator and a track record of R&D prior to that.

“My task was to formalize the company. We opened an office in Maynooth which was convenient for Dublin and for accessing the highway to Galway where we were doing the sea trials.

“We have an office in the United States and our operation over there has recently started to bear fruit for us. We have just recently got a $2.4 million grant from the Department of Energy for the work we are doing there. That builds on grants that we have secured here in Ireland of €2.2 million and a European Commission Framework grant of €5.1 million.

“We have been quite successful at maximizing financing from the public sector over the last couple of years. This is very important as it has been a time when the global economic conditions have been such that investment in new pre-revenue technology has been challenging. Trying to find the right investors with the right kind of appetite for this has been challenging.

“Having the endorsement of significant public sector funding partners has been important in bringing in new investment. But we also have been very successful in attracting large corporate companies to work with us.

“We have brought together a world-class team of engineering expertise into the company. We realise we can’t develop a commercial product on our own. So, instead of growing 50, 60, 70 people internally we have built a small, very talented, expert team and we collaborate with third parties in areas where they would have greater expertise.”

The green-tech energy sector is growing in importance and is clearly vital for all our futures. But good ideas and technology are not always enough for success. How do you manage the non-technical development for Wavebob?

“The opportunity for us has been trying to collaborate with end-users at an early point. Identify who would be our ideal customers and get them working with us now. So, we are developing our product absolutely in line with their expectations.

“We identified key market segments that we wanted to serve:

  • ”Utility scale electricity. A wave farm where you might have one or two hundred megawatts of wave energy devices bringing electricity to shore into the national grid and contributing to renewable energy targets, etc.

    “To that end we have strategic relationships with Vattenfall one of the largest electrical utilities in Europe. We have established a joint venture company with them in Ireland called Tonn Energy which is focused on developing commercial scale wave farms consisting of Wavebob technology off the west coast of Ireland.

  • “We are also engaged with Bord Gáis. They invested with us before Christmas. We also have a technical service agreement with ESB international so we have good, strong relationships with the key utilities.
  • “The other market sector we are pursuing is the off-shore oil and gas sector. Wavebob technology is designed to operate deep water so we can get out to those platforms that are operating in that environment and work effectively. There are a number of oil and gas companies that see the opportunity in reducing their costs by using the renewable energy that surrounds their platforms.”

When are we likely to see these wave farms in operation?

“The industry is still three years away from being commercial. There is a lead-time for putting down the infrastructure for these wave farms; the permit process, the planning, the environmental impact assessments and all the regulatory issues that are involved and which have to be considered.

“Then we have to allow for the fact that the amount of time to procure the cable that brings the electricity back to shore is about eighteen months to two years. The cables are made to order as there are specific requirements for fibre optic cables for communications and so on. Also, at present, there is a global shortage of copper.”

Despite the challenges involved, generating electricity from the movement of waves contains a number of advantages that justify all the effort and costs involved. Designing a device that is expected to function consistently while out in the open sea and be able to survive in that environment for twenty-five years is a work of extreme engineering by any standards.

Apart from issues of sustainability and fulfilling the need for a low environmental impact, wave generated electricity offers a consistency of power generation not found with wind powered devices. There are always waves coming in along the west coast of Ireland. It is this combination of sustainability and consistency that makes the generation of electricity by means of wave power such a vital contributor to our future energy needs.

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