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Portugal: Surf's up

AT JUST 2.25 megawatts (MW), the capacity of the world's first commercial wave-power project may not stop global warming in its tracks, but it may herald greater things. Inaugurated in late September, the €9m project has been carried out by a consortium of project financier Babcock & Brown, state-owned utility Energias de Portugal and Portuguese manufacturer Efacec, together with Edinburgh-based Pelamis Wave Power, the technology's creator.

The project comprises three 140 metre-long sets of articulated carbon steel tubes floating three miles out to sea from the town of Agucadoura, in the north of the country. Each of these wave-energy converters comprises four sections of tubing, 3.5 metres across, joined by hinges, whose movement in the swell powers hydraulic rams, which in turn drive generators. The three structures are connected to the mainland by a subsea cable.

Now the plan is to add a further 25 converters to the project, bringing total generating capacity to around 21 MW. This would provide enough power for more than 15,000 households, while saving more than 60,000 tonnes a year of carbon emissions compared with a conventional power plant, according to the consortium.

Pelamis has been developing its wave-converter technology for a decade and launched a prototype single converter off the Scottish coast in 2004. But it was the generous tariffs and financial support on offer from the Portuguese government that enabled the technology to be commercialised. The country is paying a feed-in tariff of €0.25 ($0.35) per kilowatt hour, while the project has also received a €1.25m grant from the government's Agência de Inovação.

The consortium, known as Ondas de Portugal, says it wants to develop a series of wave-power projects in the country, as opportunities arise. Wave developers will also be looking to take the technology further afield – the UK, US, France, New Zealand and South Africa are among countries with sufficient wave resources and demand to make wave power an option.

But much will depend on the financial incentives for what is still an expensive, fledgling technology. The UK has so far failed to attract sizeable investment to the wave-power industry, despite playing host to Pelamis, the most successful company in the sector. This, says the industry, is partly down to the way renewable energy is financed in the UK. Whereas Portugal is providing guaranteed premium feed-in tariffs for several years, the UK relies on a system of renewable obligation certificates (ROCs) to attract investment to renewables. These certificates are issued to green power generators by the government and can be traded, but their value varies depending on the state of the market.

"ROCs don't give you the degree of certainty you need for project finance," says Anthony Kennaway, head of European communications at Babcock & Brown. "If that situation was created, the UK would be fantastic for [large-scale] wave power, given its huge wave resources."

Financing should become easier to find, as the technology becomes cheaper – something that is already happening. While the cost of the three converters installed so far averages out at €3m a piece, Kennaway says the cost of the next 25 should drop as teething problems are ironed out.

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