How a ‘reluctant academic’ is now making serious waves in renewable energy

26 Feb 2020

Prof John Ringwood. Image: Maynooth University

Prof John Ringwood of Maynooth University discusses the challenges that come with developing wave energy in Ireland and tackling the climate crisis.

After completing his undergraduate degree at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), Prof John Ringwood went on to complete a PhD in control room design at Strathclyde University in Scotland.

He later returned to Ireland to join the School of Electronic Engineering at Dublin City University and in 2000 he moved to Maynooth University. Having previously served as the founding head of the Department of Electronic Engineering and the dean of engineering, Ringwood is now the director of the university’s Centre for Ocean Energy Research.

‘Wave energy can have a big part to play in displacing fossil fuels and has the opportunity to improve Ireland’s energy security’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

In many ways I am a reluctant academic. After school, I applied to join the merchant navy but was ultimately unsuccessful. College was my backup plan and I found myself in DIT studying electrical engineering.

In those early days I really struggled to find my feet, but as I entered the final year of my degree, I had developed a passion for engineering. The enjoyment I got from my studies inspired me to keep within education and ultimately complete a PhD. My journey to complete my PhD was quite frustrating – perhaps 95pc frustration and 5pc elation. But that 5pc made it all worthwhile.

I then began to find myself at home as an academic. My route to becoming a researcher has honestly been quite accidental in many ways, but I have found it such a rewarding experience.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

In our work on wave energy, we are designing control systems – as a form of AI – to maximise the economic performance of wave energy devices. This is important as wave energy struggles to be economically viable compared to other energy sources.

Some of my previous work – particularly on time-series forecasting applied to electricity demand – has also served us well in the current application of wave energy as we try to predict waves. This helps in optimising the control in wave energy devices. Being forewarned is forearmed!

Our team has grown to between 10 and 20 people, including seasonal interns. It is comprised of myself, postdocs, PhD students and intern students, most of whom generally come from overseas.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Climate action, and the steps that we take to mitigate climate change, is extremely important. Wave energy can have a big part to play in displacing fossil fuels and has the opportunity to improve Ireland’s energy security.

We need to ensure we have a diversity of sources of renewable energy available on the grid. Ireland has an excellent indigenous energy resource in wave energy and, if harnessed correctly, it could have huge benefits.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Wave energy hasn’t yet achieved economic commercialisation – unlike wind energy. We work with a number of commercial partners to ensure that our research is commercially relevant and can find its way into practice.

It’s quite a volatile commercial landscape with most companies relatively small, but exciting, to work with. There are certainly opportunities there which need to be explored more. Ireland is well-placed internationally in terms of wave energy expertise, while the lead is probably held by Scotland.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

The lack of large companies involved in wave energy is certainly a challenge. There can sometimes be uncertainty around the viability of projects.

The lack of feeder disciplines for wave energy is also a challenge we are seeing. Some disciplines are well represented in Ireland, but some simply are not. As a result, a lot of our researchers in the lab come from overseas and this leads to a lot of time spent recruiting.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

The lack of general understanding of wave energy, compared to wind energy, can lead to misconceptions. Wind energy is easy to describe, and people are used to seeing wind turbines in their day-to-day lives.

We engage in a lot of education and public engagement through initiatives like Science Week and Engineers Week and have seen first-hand that displaying demonstration tanks and small devices to children and the general public increases the awareness and understanding of wave energy.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

In order to use wave energy and, indeed, any other renewable resource, we need to be able to tolerate intermittent and somewhat unpredictable energy sources on the grid. Ireland probably has the highest penetration of renewable energy on the grid as an island nation, but we have to continue to find ways of tolerating even more renewables.

Or, we have to change how people use electrical energy. There is quite a lot of work going on in that area, which will become even more important as the level of renewable energy penetration increases.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.