Albany scientist, driving a new wave of renewables innovation

Photo: Dr Wiebke Ebeling with WA Minister for Regional Development; Agriculture and Food; Hydrogen Industry Alannah MacTiernan.

The biggest ocean waves on record, including a 78-foot monster, have swelled in the often deadly waters of the Southern Ocean, known for its extreme turbulence and power.

Coupled with violent storms and winds, these waves have sunk ships and caused devastating coastal flooding on distant islands.

By the time they roll into the shores of Albany on Western Australia’s southern coast, they have gathered momentum and energy over thousands of kilometres and grown in power by the fierce winds that drive them all the way from Antarctica.

“Those waves arrive at this coastline in Albany uninterrupted; there’s nothing between, just kilometres of ocean and they’re hugely powerful,” says Dr Wiebke Ebeling, Marine Energy Research Australia’s Centre Manager in Albany. 

“We have the highest wave density in the world and that’s why this is the best place for wave energy.”

Dr Ebeling and a team of scientists from the University of Western Australia are conducting research into how wave energy could be harnessed and used to supply renewable power to businesses, industry and homes.

The research project – funded by the State Government, the Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre and the Australian Ocean Energy Group – centres on a small, model wave energy device that floats in the harbour waters of King George Sound. 

The project aims to advance the wave energy industry sector in Australia and is based in one of two wave energy hubs in the country. 

The other is located in the Bass Strait, off King Island, and is the only commercial ocean energy project in the country, currently powering about 200 homes.

There are several other potential wave energy sites around Australia, but none with the same wave density or consistency as Albany.

Dr Ebeling believes that with adequate funding and if testing and research goes to schedule, the Albany project could be scaled into a commercial operation, with a larger device placed in the Southern Ocean capturing enough energy to power homes and businesses in about three years. 

And the town of Albany is ideally situated to become a wave energy success story.

Not only does Albany have a strong, consistent and predictable wave energy resource, it has the ideal population to consume the power generated.

Home to about 40,000 people with a hospital, schools and university campus, the town also has bustling maritime and aquaculture industries, all of which could be powered by clean, renewable wave energy.

“Maritime and aquaculture operations are some of the natural fits for ocean energy – you can fully decarbonise those smaller operations,” Dr Ebeling said. 

“With one device in the water and a cable from the device feeding into an aquaculture business for example, you could decarbonise that entire business.”

Photo: Dr Ebeling explains ocean energy technology to local school students in Albany. 

According to Dr Ebeling, some of the existing offshore oil and gas rigs peppering the WA coastline could be used for commercial renewable energy operations.

More importantly, the skills needed to operate, maintain and manage those rigs are no different for renewables.

“It’s out in the ocean and we need the same skill set that is applied to oil and gas operations, to be applied to offshore renewables,” she said. 

Skills essential for offshore renewable operations include general maintenance, technical engineering, project management, computer science, environmental law, boating and a general knowledge and experience of working offshore.

Offshore operations also require strong supply chains for steel, software and hardware, and provide economic benefits for the broader community. 

“We know the days of oil and gas are numbered; the fossil fuel reserves will be depleted but  we could repurpose those platforms (rigs) and transition the existing workforce into renewable energy.” 

Dr Ebeling is confident wave energy will play a crucial role in decarbonisation for WA.

Unlike other renewables, such as wind and solar, wave energy is highly predictable, reliable and consistent, she said. 

“Wave power is 24/7, it never stops and a stormy day and a calm day in the ocean, in terms of the energy being put out, is very similar.

“Having technology respond to something so predictable, so consistent means you can make it as effective as it possibly can be.”

According to Dr Ebeling, the research has been extremely positive, and we have the necessary technical and innovation expertise, infrastructure and skills right here in WA.

What we need now is political will.

Dr Ebeling is hopeful the Federal Government’s ‘technology over taxes’ approach to lowering Australia’s carbon emissions will drive funding and support for innovative climate solutions such as wave energy.

“As a country, we have had so many resources that we could dig up and sell but we really have an opportunity now for innovation,” she said. . 

“We shouldn’t wait for other countries to do the brainy work.

“Innovation can’t be predicted and that makes people nervous but ultimately innovation is what will save the planet.”

Clean State’s research shows that hundreds of thousands of jobs could be created as we move towards renewable energy such as wave power. 

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