Irish 'wave energy' firm to open in Annapolis

Company hopes to harvest electricity from the ocean

May 21, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

An Irish company that's building devices to harness the power of ocean waves to generate electricity announced yesterday that it plans to open its U.S. headquarters in Annapolis.

Officials with Wavebob, one of a handful of ventures worldwide exploring ways to produce clean, renewable "blue power," appeared with Gov. Martin O'Malley at a news conference to describe the company's first foray into the U.S.

Efforts are under way on the West Coast to test for wave energy farms, but the chances of such facilities sprouting off the coast of Ocean City seem slim, at least in the near future.

Derek Robertson, a Wavebob general manager and Naval Academy graduate in aerospace engineering, said the company chose Annapolis because of the depth of maritime technology expertise in this area. And while the company has not determined its testing sites, the calmer Atlantic Ocean and Carderock Naval laboratory's enormous wave tank in Bethesda are possibilities, he said.

For the same reason that surfing is better on the West Coast, the East Coast is not considered ideal for the initial development of wave energy. Prevailing winds blow west to east, sending the best waves for such projects crashing against the Pacific coast from San Francisco to British Columbia and places like Ireland's Atlantic coast, Hawaii and New Zealand.

Wavebob has developed a prototype - a floating yellow buoy - that converts wave motion into electricity; at full scale, it could power 1,000 homes. The company, which has backing from Chevron Technology Ventures, also is working with a Swedish utility to develop a wave farm off the coast of Ireland. The company hopes to have 15 employees here by 2011 and plans to invest $10 million locally.

O'Malley has been seeking to bolster Maryland's clean-energy sector, and this year he signed into law a bill to double the amount of renewable energy that power companies must provide for sale to customers in Maryland, to 20 percent by 2022. O'Malley said yesterday that part of that mix of renewable energy "may well be things we have not yet imagined or discovered, and that's where Wavebob comes in."

Several initiatives are testing the technology off the West Coast and Hawaii, said Roger Bedard, ocean energy leader at the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility consortium. He said that wave energy has the potential to provide 6.5 percent of the nation's energy consumed at today's levels, though electricity from the devices is not expected to come to the nation's grid for several more years.

"It's still an emerging technology," Bedard said. "They have done small-scale testing, and then there are a whole bunch of guys still in the laboratory."

Industry officials hope that the cost of ocean energy will one day make it an attractive alternative, but they face a debate over the effect on the environment, the fishing industry and ocean views.

O'Malley has twice traveled to Ireland since taking office last year, in part to promote economic ties with the country, though the Democratic governor said yesterday that he didn't meet with Wavebob officials then.

Next week, O'Malley plans to travel to Israel on a six-day trade mission. He is scheduled to deliver a presentation to the BioMed conference on drug and medical-device commercialization in Maryland and will hold a breakfast for business leaders in Tel Aviv. He plans to meet with companies such as Teva Pharmaceuticals, which acquired Rockville-based CoGenesys Inc. this year.

The trip, organized by the Maryland/Israel Development Center, includes meetings with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The center is a nonprofit group created to encourage trade and investment with the country. A delegation of 20 science and Jewish community leaders will accompany O'Malley, according to the center.

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

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