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The Power of the Next Generation - we have no alternative PDF Print E-mail
Written by david brunnen   
Tuesday, 29 July 2008 09:34

global energyTaking energy from the oceans is not a new idea .  It may not be so easy as drilling for oil but we should not forget that when first introduced, oil was itself an ‘alternative’ source of energy.  It was an alternative to burning wood and coal. 

We only use the ‘alternative’ tag because we’ve gotten used to stable and plentiful energy supplies based on vast fossil fuel resources that until recently have been undervalued in terms of their full environmental costs.  Today’s talk of energy alternatives is rooted in not having much choice but to get back to the notion of incremental innovation. 

Incremental Innovation 

We’ve already been through several generations of electricity.  DC got converted to AC and 250 makes for more efficient distribution than 110 volts.  The construction of the National Grid reduced the number of  local coal-fired power stations.  Appliances have become more efficient.  Timers and thermostats make a better job of controlling usage.  Back at the power station the generators are now more efficient and spew out fewer greenhouse gases.

But all those incremental upgrades are, just like the stretch of any technology, now delivering increasingly marginal refinements with diminishing scope for further improvement. So what we really mean by ‘alternative’ is a step up to an entirely new generation of power generators - designs that are big, bold and brash enough to kick-start a new wave of energy innovations. each with their own series of incremental enhancements.

Next Generation Power 

Next Generation Power (NGP) is a generic term covering many technology streams.  They are all motivated by that sense of time being called on the last generation - in much the same way as across Europe and particularly Scandinavia, fibred broadband is demoting the UK’s antique copper lines to a tourist attraction for technologically curious historians studying economic decay. 

Next Generation Power (unlike broadband) does, however. have an advantage in the innovation investment stakes.  It’s far enough away from delivering real volume that the established forces do not yet see it as a threat.  That is likely to change.   As the attention of  NGP developers shifts from wind to waves we can already see established energy companies taking strategic bets on new technologies.  

Scalability is key.  It is the prospect of very large-scale energy production that is stirring  interest in Marine NGP.  By any calculation there is vast energy available from waves as soon as you crack how to capture it efficiently – more than sufficient to out-perform wind power. 

The New Wave Winners 

In much the same way that oil has favoured those countries lucky enough to have settled on or near primeval bogs, wave energy will favour those countries on the west-facing edges of continents.  When the wind whips up waves across 3000 miles of ocean and those wave hit a continental shelf, the power is not just spectacular but also remarkably consistent.  Throw in some extra turbulence from the tides and, as any sailor will know, the power is awesome.  The challenge is how to extract it. 

There is however a fundamental economic snag.  The coastlines with the most consistent wave power may be fun for surfers but are generally not places where large numbers of people choose to live.  The energy must be transported to where it’s needed.  That’s not a big problem in California, Portugal or Ireland but it doesn’t make so much sense in much of South America, West Africa or Western Australia. 

But such is the volume of available wave power that even taking account of the geographically sub-optimal locations, marine NGP could make a really big change in where many of us live and work.   

The prospects for Ireland, for example, show that plentiful and  greener energy could be the key factor in attracting inward investment in knowledge industries that need massive processing power for ‘cloud computing’. 

The notion of Ireland as a big green uninterruptible power supply for Europe may seem far-fetched – but then who, 60 year’s ago, was predicting that we’d live off North Sea oil and gas for a few decades ?  

The Next Generation 

In much the same way as today’s new ‘overnight sensation’ has usually spent 7 years working their passage towards stardom, incremental innovators in marine NGP will not be noticed by most people until they become impossible to ignore. 

Innovators are creative people  who see the opportunities early on and find themselves drawn to tackle large challenges.  Whilst most of us stand around saying ‘something must be done’ they crack on doing things - taking risks, being engaged, and largely being ignored. 

The plain truth is that we really have no alternative but to encourage and to trust the energy of the next generation.

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See also new series: 'Looking for the next wave'.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 13:03
 

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