JAMES OWEN, National Geographic News, December 2, 2008
The race is officially on for a U.S. $15 million (10 million Euro) prize for harnessing the power of the oceans.
The winning marine renewable energy innovation would provide a serious energy alternative to burning fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming.
Details of the Saltire Prize Challenge were announced Tuesday in Edinburgh by Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond.
The award will go to the team that “successfully demonstrates—in Scottish waters—the best commercially viable wave or tidal technology capable of providing electricity to thousands of homes.”
The winning team must supply this electricity using only the power of the sea for a continuous two-year period.
“It is Scotland’s energy challenge to the world—a challenge to the brightest and best minds worldwide to unleash their talents and push the frontiers of innovation in green marine energy,” Salmond said.
“The Saltire Prize has the potential to unlock Scotland’s vast marine energy wealth, putting our nation at the very forefront of the battle against climate change.”
The prize, named after the cross of St. Andrew on the Scottish national flag, was inspired by other innovation competitions such as the U.S. $10 million Ansari X Prize.
That contest led to the first private spacecraft launch in 2004.
“Saudi Arabia of Ocean Energy”
Scotland boasts a quarter of Europe’s tidal power potential, according to Salmond.
He described the Pentland Firth, a region between Scotland’s north coast and the Orkney Islands, as the “Saudi Arabia of renewable marine energy.”
Scotland aims to meet 50% of its electricity demand from renewable resources by 2020.
There’s also huge potential for ocean energy globally, said prize committee member Terry Garcia, executive vice president for mission programs for the National Geographic Society. “It’s not going to be the sole solution to our energy needs,” Garcia said, but “this will be one of the important pieces of the puzzle.” The main purpose of the competition is to act as a catalyst for innovation, Garcia added.
“It’s both about making marine energy economically viable and being able to produce it in a sustained way on a large scale,” he said.
Wave and Tidal Power
The two major types of ocean energy are wave and tidal energy.
Wave energy technology involves floating modules with internal generators, which produce electricity as they twist about on the sea surface.
Tidal energy harnesses tidal currents with arrays of underwater turbines similar to those that propel wind farms.
Tidal ranks among the most reliable renewable energies because tides are highly predictable, said AbuBakr Bahaj, head of the University of Southampton’s Sustainable Energy Research Group in the U.K.
“But wave energy is driven by wind, which is notoriously difficult to predict,” he said.
Even so, wave power may have the higher electricity-generating potential.
In Britain, for instance, it’s estimated that wave power could potentially provide 20% of the country’s total electricity supply, against 5-10%for tidal power, Bahaj said.
The scientist says the main technical challenge is to create reliable power installations that can operate in difficult marine environments for five to ten years without maintenance.
“You also need to have multiple devices working together at each site,” he said.