Can the world’s biggest wave project turn the tide for the technology?

9 April 2018 (Last Updated April 5th, 2018 15:58)

Wello is delivering its wave energy converter, the Penguin, to Bali to help provide emission-free power. The project will be the largest in the world, but will it succeed where other wave technologies have failed?

Can the world’s biggest wave project turn the tide for the technology?
The Penguin uses rotational energy from waves to silently generate power, which can be transported to the grid via underground cables. Credit: Courtesy of Jan Oelker, Wello

Indonesian infrastructure company Gapura Energi Utama (GEU) has placed an order for the biggest wave energy park in the world. It will use the Penguin, a device developed by Finnish wave energy company Wello, to generate carbon-free power for Bali, Indonesia.

The Penguin uses rotational energy from waves to silently generate power, which can be transported to the grid via underground cables. The technology can be anchored to the ground at depths of 50m, beyond the wave break line.

The Bali project represents Wello’s first commercial endeavour and should be delivered by the end of this year. But will it survive and harness the power of the ocean?

The Penguin: wave energy converter

Wello has developed the Penguin wave energy converter (WEC) over the last ten years. When operating, the WEC floats on top of the water where kinetic energy from the waves causes the device to gyrate, a movement which is converted into power.

“The Penguin is a sloping device that has a special asymmetric shape,” explains Wello CEO Heikki Paakkinen. “It’s like a vessel but curved and that makes it roll in a very specific way, a rotational roll which means that the direction of the inclination of the device is continuously turning clockwise in one direction.”

This rotation is one of the main differentiators between the WEC and other wave technologies. One of the biggest problems facing wave technology is enduring the punishing ocean environment. The constant beating by saltwater often damages wave energy equipment far too quickly for it to be an economical option for clean power.

The Penguin, however, has no moving parts submerged within the water itself, helping to protect them and lower the speed of erosion. “The motion of the ocean is turned into rotation inside the device; we have a mast inside the device that is following the movement,” says Paakkinen. “This mast is turning the generator, which is connected to the main shaft, so we don’t need any gears or any hydraulics. It’s a direct conversion from the rotation of the mast to the rotation of the generator. From that on, it’s simple wind turbine electronics.”

This simplicity is one of the key advantages of the Penguin, and helps to keep it cost-effective. Wello says its devices are already competitive with wind power technologies and that serial production could help to bring costs down by a further 50%.

The park in Bali will be Wello’s first commercial application of the Penguin, and trials have already been conducted. Wello has been testing the Penguin WEC off the coast of Orkney, Scotland, since 2012, exposing it to waves of up to 12m-high. The device has managed to continue generating power without malfunction or degradation, and continues to function with all of its original internal components.

Growing demand for power in Bali

Throughout Indonesia, there is a great need for new, clean power sources. Many of the islands still rely on diesel generators and demand for power is growing by around 8% a year.

Wello and GEU’s plant will be the biggest in the world, greatly boosting local power generation and providing 10MW to Nusa Penida Island in Bali. “Indonesia’s ocean wave energy potential is more than 17GW, but not yet explored at all,” said GEU president  manager Komang Agus Pribadiana. “Teaming up with Wello is truly a brilliant idea and a strategic manoeuvre to capture the huge ocean wave’s utility market. This alliance could ignite the fabrication of a 100% local content hull and other supporting equipment could be produced locally as well.”

Indonesia’s island make-up presents an obvious opportunity for wave power, but the support of the current government is also easing adoption. Currently, it plans to increase renewables from 5% in 2011 to 23% by 2025. “In Indonesia they really seem to have a very positive approach to renewables and wave energy, they understand that they have a huge potential for awesome wave energy,” says Paakkinen.

A key reason for the growth in energy demand in Bali especially is the importance of the tourism industry. White beaches and sunny weather make Bali a popular holiday destination and the tourism industry currently contributes $5.5bn to the economy. But with more people visiting the island, more power is required. Bali has built several coal power plants to deal with the increase in power demand; however, these are unattractive and have caused local upheaval.

“There is a lot of tourism and they have understood and recognised that tourists don’t like diesel generators, and they don’t like wind turbines and solar panels because all of those kind of destroy the ideas of a paradise island,” says Paakkinen. “For the tourists visiting, it is very much a paradise island and they take for granted that there is electricity in the grid but they don’t want to see how it’s generated.”

As such, having unobtrusive Penguin devices floating on the horizon could offers an enticing alternative power source. Wello is confident that the potential market for wave power in Indonesia alone is worth billions of euros.

Will wave power finally make a splash?

Wave power has dramatically lagged behind both wind and solar over the last few decades. Throughout the 1990s, there were high hopes for wave technology becoming commercialised quickly and effectively, but the vision hasn’t become a reality for a number of reasons. A key reason is the lack of convergence on a specific design; while wind turbines quickly became relatively standardised, wave energy designs still come in all shapes and sizes.

Additionally, the cost of wave power has simply failed to become competitive thus far. The price of wave energy currently can be as much as nine to ten times the average cost of wind power in Europe. Unlike solar and wind power, the technology has not matured enough for a drop in prices.

But wave power is still expected to play a role in the global move towards increased reliance on renewable technologies. There are 372,000 miles of coastline throughout at the world, presenting a huge opportunity for harvesting wave power. Ocean energy has the potential to meet 20% of power demand in the UK, and 15% in the US.

Wello already has plans for more wave power plants throughout the world. In February, the company signed a contract with Chinese conglomerate CIMC OEI for a research and demonstration project. Asia is thought to be a key market for wave technologies in the coming years and this deal, along with Bali park, represents important advances for Wello and wave technology.

“At the moment there are already several locations where we can provide cheaper energy than wind or solar,” says Paakkinen. “At this stage, the thing for us is to identify such areas and start building there. Simultaneously, we are developing better technology which increases our efficiency and the energy production of the devices. We are also industrialising the product to bring costs down and make the energy cheaper. So in the near future we will be really competitive with all other forms of energy, practically everywhere on ocean coasts around the world.”