A different green wave coming from Ireland

And now a message from the “Signs of Hope for Renewable Energy” Department concerning that hotbed of renewable energy development – Ireland?

That’s right. A cloudy little island with no vast prairies or sun-drenched deserts recently announced that it generates 15 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, mainly wind and solar. To expand its renewable energy production, Ireland is now going hammer-and-tongs at the promising but under-unexplored area of wave power. Last week, Sustainable Energy Agency Ireland (SEAI), the country’s renewable energy agency, announced a major wave power development deal with the Australian company Carnegie Wave Energy to develop Ireland’s Belmullet wave energy area. SEAI estimates there is enough energy in the waves that wash against Ireland’s west coast to meet 75 percent of the country’s energy needs. Harnessing it is another matter, of course, with a lot of unanswered questions and untested technologies to evaluate. Nevertheless, the country is plowing ahead to help reach a goal of 40 percent renewable power by 2020.

Seeing as the United States has two thousand-mile coastlines, Ireland’s move into wave power should be of more than passing interest. There are pockets of interest in wave power in the U.S., most notably in Oregon, where the first U.S. wave power facility started construction in February of this year. The news coverage of the project, however, struck a skeptical note about the project’s potential, pointing out that a wave facility in Portugal went under for financial reasons, that a pilot wave power facility sank off the Oregon coast in 2008, and that the wave plant’s electricity will be five to six times more expensive than conventionally generated electricity.

Okay, so those projects bought the farm and the economics haven’t caught up to the technology. So what? Whatever happened to Yankee ingenuity? I’m old enough to remember watching the first Moon landing on television. It came after a lot of embarrassing and occasionally deadly mistakes, including the 1967 Apollo 1 launch pad explosion that killed three astronauts. Two years later, Neil Armstrong made history by jumping out of the Lunar Module. Is figuring out wave energy that much harder – if at all?

Not according to Ireland, and in my humble opinion the Irish have built up some cred in this area. Solar energy is a significant portion of Ireland’s renewable energy capacity. Solar means sun. How often do you think of Ireland and sun in the same breath? The place makes Seattle look like Santa Fe, it’s so cloudy. If the Irish can turn the same trick with waves that they did with the sun, they’ll reach their goal of 40 percent renewable energy by 2020 in a walk. Where will the resource-rich U.S., currently with 7 percent of its power generated renewably, be in the renewables race by then?