Ocean energy has foxed the best minds in engineering, but one investor thinks he can crack it

The Sea
The Sea

Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Norris is an inventor and an investor. He has put big money behind everything from blow-dry bars to horse feed to cherry juice. And now the British millionaire is looking to solve one of the thorniest problems in the world of renewable energy.

His quest began almost three years ago, when he went out looking for wave-power companies in which to invest.

Using the power of oceans to generate electricity is intuitive to many—we can all observe the sea’s awesome strength. But harnessing that energy is notoriously difficult. No one in the world has yet worked out how to build a commercially viable wave-power business. And companies have died trying.

Norris wanted to garner some of the expertise already out there, and help a company achieve its ambitions. But after a year of searching, Norris hadn’t found what he was looking for. So he decided to build one from scratch.

He set up a company of his own, Wavepower Ltd, built offices near Glastonbury in the west of England, and hired several of the people who’d worked in the companies that had already gone under. He says he’s in it for the long haul—and he’d have to be, based on what he told me in February at an ocean-energy conference in Edinburgh. Speaking with him after his presentation, delivered in jeans and a Wavepower hoodie, I ask how much energy will we be producing from waves by 2020, either here in Scotland (arguably the epicenter of the global industry) or anywhere else?

“None. I don’t think by 2020 there’ll be anything meaningful out of the wave industry,” he predicts.

But it might only be a year or two after that that the sector will reach its tipping point, he says. “I think in five to six years we could be producing electricity [that is] commercially meaningful.”

The turning tide

Ocean energy takes two main forms. There’s wave power, which Norris is researching. And there’s tidal power, which uses the more predictable flow of tides, or differentials in water height that they produce, to drive turbines.

Two years ago, both seemed on the ascendant. But the fortunes of the technologies have diverged. Tidal lagoons and arrays of tidal turbines are being built on what could well become a commercially viable scale. Right now, several companies are proving the concept with expensive first installations.

Some of the frontrunners in wave power, meanwhile, have folded. Pelamis, a Scotland-based firm which at its height employed 70 people, and spent £90 million in the course of its 17-year life, closed down in November 2014. Aquamarine, based in Edinburgh, called in administrators in October 2015.

Engineers standing in a boat pull a rope to reveal the name of EON's Pelamis P2 wave energy device during its naming ceremony in Edinburgh, Scotland May 18, 2010. The P2 device named Vagr Atferd, which measures 180 metres and weighs approximately 1500 tonnes, was officially named by Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond before being transported to the European Marine Energy Centre in the Orkney islands for deployment and testing. REUTERS/David Moir (BRITAIN - Tags: ENERGY) - RTR2E1P5
Pelamis’ technology. (Reuters/David Moir)

That the learning not be lost, the Scottish government stepped in and created Wave Energy Scotland, which seeks to continue the complex work of translating waves that could sink a ship into power that could boil a kettle.

Why is that so very difficult?

All renewable energy takes complex engineering and runs on tight margins. A big reason for that is the fundamental physical problem of storing energy. If efficient-enough batteries were developed, renewables could merrily churn away at their own speed, topping up the power-store to be used later. But those batteries don’t yet exist.

Waves, meanwhile, don’t provide a flow as steady as tides, or even wind. They can lap gently at one moment, and an hour later can crash and roar. They can come from any direction.

Also, they are wet. Any device channeling energy from waves will have to withstand the harshest of conditions—not just offshore, like a wind turbine, but with its moving parts submerged in salty, often chilly waters. The seas drag boulders and other heavy, machine-smashing chunks of debris in their currents. They are home to manifold creatures. They are unpredictable. A storm in Haiti; a light wind off Gibraltar; anything can affect the way the sea behaves in a completely different part of the world.

And then, once the energy is transferred from wave to device—whether that’s a floating snake of interconnected chambers, or a submerged “sock” on the seafloor, both of which have been tested—it needs to get to land. That means cables. Cables are expensive, and they get in the way of ships.

A man with a plan

Norris made his money by founding a company that became the UK’s largest seller of pensions, and was absorbed into Hargreaves Lansdown, a financial services company. Norris joined the firm’s board but left at 36 to run his own money, investing in all that cherry juice and hairstyling.

But he wanted a mission. Something to focus himself for the rest of his life, to inspire his kids, and to make a difference to the world. He chose renewables, and wave power specifically. It seems like a daunting task.

But Norris has time—and money. He says he has more than £100 million to put into Wavepower, but right now the company is supported by the income from his other investments. He has a team of 18 engineers and the consultation services of managers who were part of the industry’s (mostly now-defunct) vanguard. He wants to build a principles-led business, he says, and avoid the imposition of external deadlines and other restrictions that companies with government or investor funding are subject to.

“The plan is the rest of my life. We’ve built nice offices. We’ve got the financial horizon to be able to do that,” he says. “If we don’t make anything work in 20 years…”

Norris doesn’t finish that sentence. He says he’s soon going scuba-diving with his daughter, and teaching her to drive speedboats and understand electronics. She’s 10, and he wants her, and his other three children, to be excited about the things that excite him.

I ask Norris where the wave-energy industry will be in 2050—a date beloved by those tasked with making projections about renewable energy and emissions. He answers with an air of self-assurance—”2050? Then we’re going to be rocking”—but this quickly gives way to a more pondering consideration. Looking that long-term, even for a man with a vision, may be daunting.

“I don’t know… I would like to think that our company was producing enough to supply a country like Ireland, across the globe,” he says. “That’s the scale I’m looking at. And we will be doing that then. I believe.”

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