The sea contains enough energy to power the whole planet with clean, renewable electricity. The problem is, how do you harness this awesome source of power? The ocean is a notoriously tough environment to work in. Salt water and complex machinery aren’t the best of friends. There are storms to contend with.
This is why wave energy technology has lagged behind wind, solar and tidal energy in the race for renewables. It’s a phenomenally difficult technical challenge – but there’s also a huge untapped market out there, waiting for the right solution to come along.
For the past decade, Swansea-based Marine Power Systems have been systematically ticking off the landmarks in their quest to build the world’s best wave energy system. The company was co-founded in 2008 by Dr Gareth Stockman and Dr Graham Foster, a pair of mechanical engineers who met while doing PhDs at Swansea University.
“Our ambition is to be a world leader in the supply of marine energy extraction hardware by producing the highest performance, most cost-effective technology in the market,” says Dr Stockman, now the company’s CEO.
Since founding the company, they’ve been helped by the Welsh Government to secure the right funding at each key stage in their development, allowing them to build and test prototypes at increasing scale, paving the way for the device to be launched on the market and sold around the world.
“Our technology is at the cutting edge of the marine energy sector,” says Dr Foster, the Chief Technology Officer. “We developed a unique floating platform technology that enables us to harness wave energy, wind energy or a combination of both. We can get out into the deep water and harness all of that energy that would otherwise be impossible to harness by conventional means.”
Marine Power Systems are the only company developing optimal solutions that cover this combined technology. It began with WaveSub, whose orbital energy capture mechanism harnessed the energy flow of waves. Then came WindSub, a floating wind turbine that can be anchored in at sites that are too deep for fixed foundations. Both technologies are combined with DualSub, a revolutionary device that can simultaneously capture both wave energy and wind energy in a single machine. The first commercial DualSub will have a rated power of around 15MW, quickly increasing to 20MW+ as the technology develops.
Crucially, all three devices are based on the same platform, with the same deployment, anchoring, operation and maintenance procedure.
Dr Foster says: “Our devices deliver both high performance and cost efficiency for our customers, right through the entire product life-cycle whether that’s manufacturing, deployment or operational maintenance. Flexible design enables improved manufacturability and simplified logistics - all things that further reduce costs for our customers.”
Their next step is to take a full-scale prototype to the Biscay Marine Energy Platform (BiMEP) off the coast of the Basque Country in Spain, supported by a £12.8m injection of EU funds that was delivered through the Welsh Government. They’ll test a commercial megawatt-scale combined wind and wave device – with a direct connection into the Spanish electricity grid. It’s the final stage in the company’s testing programme before they deliver commercial devices to their customers.
“It’s an incredibly exciting time for the business,” says Dr Stockman. “The marine energy sector in Wales is vibrant and growing at pace with over £152 million invested into the marine renewable energy sector to date. With two large-scale wave and tidal stream demonstration zones, seabed agreements in place for three separate marine and tidal stream projects, and a number of proposals for significant offshore floating wind projects, Wales is well positioned to play a global leading role in marine energy.”
It's a sector that Wales will continue to nurture. While visiting Marine Power Systems, First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “We want Wales to be a leading player in the marine energy sector. This means supporting Welsh developers like Marine Power Systems; continuing to attract developers from around the world to Wales and exporting our knowledge, technology and services globally.”