Ocean energy innovation and where Ireland is positioned (interview)

19 Oct 2012

Eoin Sweeney, head of ocean energy, SEAI

This week Dublin was the setting for a three-day global conference on ocean energy. Before the event closed up today, Siliconrepublic.com spoke to Eoin Sweeney, head of ocean energy at the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), about developments in the sector in Ireland.

Around 900 marine renewable energy experts from 40 countries converged in Ireland for the three-day International Conference on Ocean Energy (ICOE) in Dublin this week.

Right now Ireland is being viewed as having made significant progress in terms of technology development, test facilities and infrastructure planning in order to capitalise on the country’s ocean energy resources. At the opening of the event on Wednesday Brian Motherway, head of the SEAI, spoke about how Ireland has a chance to maximise its ocean energy potential, creating employment opportunities and offering a cleaner energy potential.

Global stage for ocean energy

Speaking today, Eoin Sweeney, who head’s up SEAI’s ocean energy division, said that the ICOE conference is the largest dedicated ocean energy event.

“It has been a fantastic event for networking, for business, and probably has given a lift to the ocean energy sector, all of which is what we had hoped,” he said.
As for Ireland’s strengths around ocean energy right now, Sweeney said that the technologies are continuing to develop.

“The significant players that are going to be needed to transform this industry into a commercial reality are entering and becoming more active in the sector. Secondly, there are big players entering the sector like Siemens, ABB, Alstom and OEMs like that, and also utilities. The other dimension is that the offshore grid, which will be the key infrastructure enabler for ocean energy is also falling into place, so there are a lot of positives.”

Touching on how Eirgrid is doing work on modelling the offshore grid, Sweeney said that SEAI is carrying out a specific study at the moment with the energy infrastructure company on the enhancement of offshore grids specifically for renewables off the west coast of Ireland. “That study is due to come through towards the end of the year, so we’re really pushing that,” said Sweeney.

Tidal and wave resources

In Ireland, he says the best tidal resources are around the North coast.

“We’ve been hugely encouraged by the progress that Northern Ireland has made in advancing their licensing and leasing and they have awarded two 100MW tidal leases in the last 10 days.”

As for wave energy, he says it is behind tidal generally.

“It’s a tougher proposition. We’re continuing to support a number of technologies in Ireland but we’re also watching what is happening internationally. What’s significant with wave technology is the emergence, particularly in Scotland, France and Spain of consortia behind the first significant array projects, which are still effectively R&D. The real challenge for wave is the sheer cost of doing the work,” he explains.

“We calculate that from concept through to pre-commerciality is in the order of €100m per wave technology.”

The key problem for wave companies in Ireland, according to Sweeney, is they are struggling with finance. “It’s accessing finance to get large or full-scale prototypes into the water.”

Challenges ahead

But what about the challenges for Ireland in the ocean energy sector in general?

“The broad perspective is that wave energy will happen. And clearly when it does the Irish resource is going to be extremely attractive. Wave energy developments will take place in Irish waters. The challenge for Ireland is whether we are engaged in the underbelly of the businesses associated with this or whether we are simply leasing the space to developers.”

He says the real challenge is to create the “early industry clusters” that are the incubators for all of the skills and know-how that will eventually grow into “significant” companies.

“I am not just talking about the devices themselves but also the deployment and the mooring and the servicing and all of the activities that go with this.”

Sweeney says that SEAI’s objective is to try to create the conditions so these clusters can grow and develop in Ireland.

Finally, he says if Ireland is going to be a player in ocean energy technology and industry in the future, the country will need to invest in research and in supporting the industry clusters.

“With this conference I think we have put Ireland very much in the spotlight. There is a lot of admiration for what we have done and people can see that Ireland really has a good story to tell. It’s a question of following this up with actions now.”

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic