Portland To Portland

I got sent a media release today about this project to build a wavefarm off Portland, Victoria. As is often the case, there is less to the release than meets the eye. All they are actually doing is conducting a detailed survey of the seabed to see if it is suitable. They’re not at the point of building yet. The release claims the project will be 62.5MW, which is interesting because the website is still talking about 19MW, with an option to expand to 100MW.

There are several Australian ideas for ways to harvest energy from waves, and an Australian made a pretty dramatic improvement to one of the existing overseas models, but this is not one of them, so I don’t know much at all about the technology. It seems they’ve just decided that the big waves off Australia’s south coast are a good place to deploy – and the coincidence of sharing a name with the location of their flagship project may have had some psychological effect.

To be honest, I very much doubt that wave power will ever produce a large amount of the world’s energy. While the resource is huge, its not easy to get at, and various factors meant that little progress was made on the technology in the 1970s when people first got serious about trying. Wind bounded ahead in that era, while solar got moving through the 80s. By the time the late 90s came around and people started investing much thought and money into wave power it was too far behind to catch up.

However, that doesn’t mean wave power can’t play a significant role in the fight against climate change. The amounts produced may end up being small, but they could have strategic significance.

Wave power has two big advantages over wind and solar. Firstly, it is both more consistent and more predictable. In a good location a wave power station will be producing almost all the time, and a relatively even amount. How important that is to the grid remains to be seen – predictions of problems from the intermittency of wind seem to have been overblown (as it were) so far. However, there is certainly a psychological benefit. Moreover, we can predict when the downtimes will occur a fair way beforehand – flat seas are the result of a lack of wind thousands of kilometres away so we have plenty of warning and time to flip over to back ups.

Secondly, the best places in the world for wind power are often not very favourable to solar. They’re also mostly the sort of developed world places where the fight against renewables is most intense. I’m sure that fossil fuel companies and ideologues will try to muster surfers and anglers against wave energy, but they may find it harder than stoking fears about wind farms. If wave power can produce even 20% of the electricity for 2% of the planet – but a crucial 2% that is holding everyone else back – it could do something very good for the fight against climate change.

So here’s hoping this project goes ahead.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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