|LONDON - The stormy, ship-wrecking seas of the Bay of Biscay are poised to take on a more constructive role as the site of the world\'s first wave-driven power station on a commercial scale.|
Wave power firm Ocean Power Technologies (OPT) said yesterday it had signed a deal with Spanish electricity utility Iberdrola for a pilot project involving 10 power-generating buoys. These will be placed about a half-mile off Spain\'s north coast, midway between Santander and Bilbao.
OPT has been ocean testing its kit since late 1997, and has a similar pilot scheme running off Hawaii with the support of the U.S. Navy.
OPT Chief Executive and founder George Taylor says his firm has market leadership in \"ocean experience\" in the youthful wave power industry.
Although both the Hawaiian and Spanish projects will generate a tiny 1.25 megawatts, Taylor expects to have a 100 megawatt wave farm in place by 2006 - helping bring his loss-making company into profit the same year.
\"Spain is very likely to be the first commercial site,\" he said. \"We have a great partner in Iberdrola, and European governments are strongly committed to increasing power from renewable sources.\"
The full-sized wave power farms will use a new generation of 500 kilowatt \"PowerBuoys\" four times the size of those OPT will use in its Spanish pilot scheme.
The buoys, anchored to the sea bed and floating beneath the surface, capture and convert wave energy into a controlled mechanical force that drives a generator, linked by an undersea cable to the shore.
A smart sensor optimizes power in differing wave conditions, and switches the generator off when the wave activity is too strong, to avoid damaging the equipment. Severe storms therefore mean downtime for the buoys, as do periods of flat calm.
However, OPT says the buoys still offer between 80 and 90 percent availability, comparable with conventional fossil fuel generators, and enjoy a key advantage over wind (30-45 percent) and solar (20-30 percent) power generation.
They take up less space per megawatt than either windfarms or conventional shore-based generators. Ocean Power believes the 100 megawatt plants will be able to produce at an operating cost of 3-4 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 5-6 cents for wind.
Hawaii\'s fishermen have welcomed the buoys as fish attractors, Taylor said.
Taylor also has high hopes for starting a project off Japan, where marine engineering and construction firm Penta Ocean Construction is his partner and financial backer.
OPT became the world\'s first listed wave power firm last year, raising 38 million pounds at an October initial public offering (IPO) on London\'s Alternative Investment Market.
Its shares have not performed well, dropping from a peak of 130 pence after the IPO to stand at 95-1/2 pence yesterday.
Robin Batchelor, who runs the Merrill Lynch New Energy Technology Fund, is not a holder of the stock at present but is keeping a cautious eye on its progress.
\"I\'m a great fan of wave power, but at the moment you\'ve really got to believe the technology will work,\" he said.
\"After the IPO, OPT are one of the best financed wave power companies out there, and if they start to deliver some results, there\'s some potential,\" he said.
Despite surging interest in the renewables industry, wave power remains in its infancy, he warned.
\"It\'s quite early days for anybody in the wave industry to start saying that they have a lead,\" he said. \"The technology is very immature, but there is some good progress being made.\"
Story by Andrew Callus
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE