Renewable Wales: From Wave Energy to Wind

5/12/2008 by Erica Gies
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Wales, a beautiful corner of the United Kingdom on the western edge of England, helped fuel Britain’s industrial revolution, not to mention its pea-soup pollution “fogs.” The mining of vast quantities of coal from its southern valleys for two centuries enabled the British to go forth and conquer the world. Now, with global warming an increasing concern, Britain is shifting away from coal and toward renewable energy, striving for targets set in concert with other European Union (EU) member countries. Britain’s commitment to generate 15 percent of total energy — including electricity, heat and transport fuels — from renewables by 2020 sounds impressive in the absence of a national U.S. target. But 17 of the 27 EU countries have higher targets, including top-flight Sweden with 49 percent. Since gaining some degree of autonomy from the United Kingdom in 1999, Wales is now setting more aggressive targets for itself. For example, it aims to be self-sufficient in renewable and low-carbon electricity by 2025. Such programs receive cautious welcome from environmental nonprofits, but they have concerns. According to Neil Crumpton, energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth in Wales, “What ministers announce and what is likely to happen are two very different things…. The targets are usually not backed by policies and funding that will deliver.” Environmental groups also say they’d like to see government put more resources into conservation as well as new sources of generation. And when it comes to the latter, they would give priority to home-based solar and wind devices, because it’s educational and encourages thriftiness. Critics gain ammunition to question focus and commitment because of the many layers of government bureaucracy — from Wales, the UK and the EU. When discussing Wales’ commitment to make all new buildings zero carbon by 2011, Environment Minister Jane Davidson admitted that jurisdiction can slow things down. “Well, it’s one of these areas which is complicated by the fact that the majority of the responsibility for the area lies with the UK government,” she says. “So what we can do as a Welsh Assembly Government is relatively limited.” Still, Wales perseveres. In an attempt to boost its knowledge economy, the Welsh Assembly Government has created 11 Technium Innovation Centers to drive enterprise and innovation in Wales. Companies accepted into a Technium benefit from the state-of-the-art facilities, university expertise, and business support. Some start-ups have found the program a lifesaver, while others complain it is bureaucratic or avoid it entirely. And Wales is launching a wide range of projects, from a 350-megawatt (MW), wood chip-fueled biomass plant to increasing offshore wind to 33 gigawatts by 2020 (requiring 7,000 turbines). There are also solar projects, wave and tidal energy and innovative waste reclamation for energy. Robert Hertzberg, former Speaker of the California State Assembly, founded a solar company called G24i in Cardiff, and high-tech dye-sensitized solar cell (DSSC) technology started rolling off machines in November. G24i is the first company in the world to manufacture this technology in a flexible coating, and its first product is a cell phone charger sold in developing countries. However, Hertzberg plans to expand soon to building-integrated materials, putting solar inside light fixtures, window blinds, and more. Hertzberg said he chose Wales because Europe is much more receptive to renewable energy than the U.S., but he largely avoided the state incentive plan because he believes in operating independently and wanted to get his company up and running quickly. “In all governments, you just get stuck in the morass of bureaucracy,” he says. “And if you accept a dollar, you have so many conditions. It’s not worth it.” With a new 2.5-MW windmill on the property, G24i has covered the company’s current energy usage and is planning an on-site learning center to teach people about renewable energy. Harnessing the ocean’s restless energy has long been the dream of scientists, but making it a commercial reality has mostly eluded entrepreneurs. Iain Russell is the local manager of Wave Dragon, a floating, slack-moored wave energy converter composed of vertical turbines near the water’s surface. It’s stationed close enough to shore to transmit power to customers via underwater transmission lines. Wave Dragon is trying to get its seven-megawatt prototype into the water off Pembrokeshire for a test run. But as a small developer, it had to apply for a government grant and has been making its way through consultations, environmental impact assessments and approvals since 2005. “There is no existing approval process for offshore wave energy installations,” says Russell. “Several years and millions of pounds may be OK for a 300-MW offshore wind farm, but for a small wave developer whose device will only be in the water for a year or two, the process is not proportional.” Several competitors around the world are working on and testing prototypes, and Wave Dragon has tested a prototype in Denmark. Another company permanently connected its device to the Italian grid from the Straits of Messina in 2006. Wales’ Severn Estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world. The lure of exploiting that energy has called out particularly loudly in recent years due to global warming, energy security concerns and rising fossil fuel costs. But the estuary is also protected by several national and international wildlife designations, so the debate is on. The British government is currently considering two tidal technologies. One, essentially a dam called a barrage, uses the energy difference between high and low tides. The other, a tidal lagoon, consists of offshore catchment pools that would channel energy without blocking the entire river. Although the currently study is looking at different sized facilities, the largest would supply 4.4 percent of Britain’s electricity, or 0.6 percent of its total energy. It would also reduce less than one percent of its carbon emissions for an estimated cost of $29 billion and not come online until 2022. “Harnessing the Severn will produce a long-term renewable energy source for Wales and also the UK,” said Jane Davidson, Wales’ minister for environment, sustainability and housing. Most Green groups are vehemently opposed, both because of the destruction of rare habitat and because they say the project is a boondoggle that diverts time and money from energy efficiency, conservation and less environmentally damaging renewable energy technologies that would come online more quickly. Britain is also considering in-stream tidal projects, which Matt Lumley of the Nova Scotia Department of Energy says are like underwater windmills that harness kinetic energy and have environmental and economic footprints much lighter than that of barrage technology. A tidal-stream “farm” is planned off the coast of north Wales, near Anglesey, and subject to approval could be completed by 2011. Its seven turbines could power 6,000 homes.