Theory to fact? Energy technologies awaiting their day in the sun

Umar Ali 21 November 2019 (Last Updated November 21st, 2019 12:31)

As modern energy solutions grow to utility scales, there comes a point at which the challenges these projects face are based more on engineering and practice than science and theory. Umar Ali profiles projects that have been around in theory for a long time, but have yet to see their day in the sun.

Theory to fact? Energy technologies awaiting their day in the sun
Carnegie’s wave energy devices, pictured, are aesthetically similar to Ocean Harvesting Technologies’ devices but with different systems involved. Credit: Carnegie.

Tidal power: Swansea Tidal Lagoon on the rocks

The concept of power generators driven by the ebb and flow of the tide has been around for ages, yet none have been developed at scale. One of the more notorious is the Swansea Tidal Lagoon has been designed as a U-shaped 9.5km breakwater wall with a bank of 16 hydro turbines inside it, which would be built out from the Swansea coast, backed by Swansea-based Tidal Lagoon Power.

According to the company’s plans, the lagoon would have an installed capacity of 320MW and could operate 14 hours a day, providing enough energy annually to power 155,000 homes.

While it was awarded a Development Consent Order in 2015, the Swansea Tidal Lagoon was rejected by the UK government in 2018 on the grounds of being too costly.

In February 2019 the backers of the project announced their plans to revive the plan without government funding, with hopes that the wall can be built within six years. The lagoon’s backers also plan to add floating solar panels to the project, which would increase the Swansea lagoon’s annual energy output by more than a third to about 770GWh.

Tidal Lagoon Power business development manager Chris Nutt told The Guardian: “It is becoming widely understood that there is a huge hole left in our long-term energy demands and after the latest cancellation of expected new nuclear capacity our choices if anything have become simpler – saturate the UK coastline with offshore wind or invest in groundbreaking solutions like Swansea Bay.”

Wave farm: Carnegie Clean Energy’s CETO

Like tidal power, the concept of using the ceaseless movement of the ocean makes a lot of sense. Nevertheless, apart from several demonstrator projects, no full scale wave plant is in operation. A forerunner, Australia-based wave energy technology company Carnegie Clean Energy developed a unique, fully-submerged point absorber wave energy system called CETO.

CETO consists of a submerged buoy that sits a few metres below the ocean’s surface and moves with the ocean’s waves. This motion drives a power take-off system that converts the wave motion into electricity.

In a statement on Carnegie’s website, the company said: “CETO harnesses the enormous renewable energy present in our ocean’s waves and converts it into two of the most valuable commodities underpinning the sustainable growth of the planet: zero-emission electricity and zero-emission desalinated water.”

According to the company, the CETO technology has been developed and proven over 15 years, with onshore, wave tank and in-ocean testing.

CETO can also operate in a variety of water depths, tides and seafloor conditions and its modular submerged design makes it scalable and resistant to storms.

However, Carnegie Clean Energy went into voluntary administration in March 2019, three days after the government of Western Australia cancelled a deal for the company to build a wave farm in the Great Southern region.

Despite this setback, Carnegie Clean Energy is still looking for ways to recapitalise and make CETO financially viable as a renewable energy solution.

Energy producing textiles: the case of Solar Fiber

Could solar power be incorporated into clothing? A promising project, Solar Fiber is a flexible photovoltaic fibre that converts solar energy into electrical energy. The solar cells that make up the fibre are flexible enough to be made into a yarn that can be used to make a variety of clothing. Prototype pieces developed by the team include the Solar Shawl, which can display the amount of electricity generated in real-time, as well as a dress with solar panel straps.

The Solar Fiber project was developed as part of the Ideas Waiting to Happen innovation event in 2012, following which it received €2500 in startup money and €2500 in assistance from international consultancy firm L&P Group.

Meg Grant, one of the researchers working on Solar Fiber, told The Guardian: “If you look around you, textiles cover so many surfaces, so why not give them a ‘super power’ that can take advantage of this, like solar energy harvesting.”

However, such an unconventional energy technology requires rigorous testing and support from investors to move past the prototype phase. According to the Solar Fiber team, the project is 100% part-time, open-source and voluntary, with prototypes currently only capable of generating small amounts of energy.

Discussing the project’s experimental nature, Grant said: “We are open-source because we believe that this kind of technology could be so game-changing that it should be in the public domain.”

A number of other companies and institutions have experimented with solar textiles. These include Penn State University, which developed a fibre-optic solar cell in December 2012, and the miniaturised solar cells created by researchers at Nottingham Trent University in December 2018.

Nuclear fusion: the promise of ITER

Nuclear fusion is often considered the “holy grail” of energy- in theory, by fusing two nuclei from separate light atoms to create a single heavy nucleus, a vast amount of excess energy would be released safely and without any emissions.

While this technology is still very much in its infancy, developing nuclear fusion has been a point of interest for a number of countries and companies. The promise of safe, carbon-free energy is an enticing one, but such a vast technological development requires similarly vast capital investments and guarantees of economic feasibility at scale.

In September 2019, the UK Atomic Energy Agency (UKAEA) announced plans to open a £22m fusion energy research facility in Rotherham in 2020 to engage commercial fusion development in the energy industry.

The UKAEA intends for this site to help UK companies win contracts as part of French international fusion project ITER, which involves a collaboration between 35 nations to create the world’s largest tokamak to prove the feasibility of large-scale fusion as an energy source. In October 2019, an international consortium secured a contract to build the reactor for this massive project.

The UKAEA is also researching compact designs for future nuclear reactors through the Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST) Upgrade fusion experiment in Culham, which is intended to further enhance the UK’s role in international fusion research. Through this experiment, the UKAEA aims to test reactor systems, add to existing knowledge bases and trial the Super-X divertor, a “high-power exhaust system.”