We need to talk about marine renewable energy
Denmark lacks neither ocean waves nor pioneering scientists and innovators who are dreaming about harnessing energy from them. Professor at IT University of Copenhagen Brit Ross Winthereik, who headed research into initiatives in wave energy innovation around the Atlantic, explains why we are still waiting to see a booming wave energy industry.
The planet’s oceans have the potential to supply mankind with sustainable energy, yet after four decades worth of research into and experiments with marine energy, the international scientific community has yet to find a way to harness the power of wave energy on a large scale. So, does this mean that the much-discussed boom in wave energy is a lost cause? Not necessarily. The idea may just be ahead of its time. The “Ellert” – a small, three-wheeled electrical car manufactured in Randers, Denmark – was prophesied to revolutionize the car industry in the 1980’s, but when that failed to happen, the idea was laid to rest. Now, thirty years later, electrical cars are well on their way to dominating the market.
History shows that far from all technologies that hold great promise are realized, and professor at IT University of Copenhagen, Brit Ross Winthereik, hesitates to make any predictions about whether or not marine energy will ever be a commercial success. Innovation in the field of harnessing wave energy in Denmark is driven by small companies and entrepreneurs. They have yet to succeed in creating a commercial success that even comes close to the wind industry’s advances.
- I don’t know that we will see an industry boom in wave energy in Denmark like we have seen in the wind energy sector. The Orkney Islands or other sites may just as well take the lead when it comes to commercializing innovation in marine renewable energy. It is, however, my hope that innovators in Denmark will show a willingness to cooperate with others and politicians will back them up. The Vestas of waves
Brit Ross Winthereik headed the research project Marine Renewable Energy as Alien: Social Studies of an Emerging Technology – an in-depth examination of wave energy initiatives in Orkney, Iceland, and Denmark. The goal of the project was to identify similarities and differences in local approaches to renewable energy to gain an understanding of innovation processes on the ground. The research project ended in 2016, but the professor has since then followed developments in the field.
- I grew up in Western Jutland close to where Vestas was founded. Wind energy is a big deal in those parts. In a way, the narrative about the wind energy industry boom is a part of my own life story. Not least in relation to how Western Jutland is often framed as periphery. In the national imagination there is a conflict between the center and the periphery, and the popular image is one of abandoned towns and closed storefronts. I felt a need to help shape the narrative of that region because I know there is more to the story, says Brit Ross Winthereik. Success criteria
The way we talk about technological ingenuity and innovation in what the project labelled ‘edge areas’ of the country became an important area of focus in the research project, because it is tremendously important in determining whether or not new technological projects will be considered ‘aliens’ or potentially part of the energy infrastructure, according to the professor. Politicians and potential investors cannot expect to see a Vestas of waves materialize out of thin air. Rather, we need to look at innovation from a different perspective.
- Every new innovation in the energy sector is held up to the Vestas standard, because Vestas has been enormously successful. However, even though researchers and inventors have been working in the field of wave energy for more than 40 years, we still cannot say whether their endeavors will ever be commercial successes. Compared to the boom in the wind energy industry, wave has not had its breakthrough. But we may need to adjust our expectations and our criteria for success. Wave energy has engendered a field of research and innovation, and people at many different sites are working hard to develop technological concepts. We do not yet know if they will succeed, but politicians must be willing to work with uncertainly if we are to push forward this industry in the making. We need to support mechanisms for collaboration and development of the existing technological concepts instead of just waiting for the next Elon Musk to enter the stage, says Brit Ross Winthereik. Cooperation is key
With the increased focus on the climate emergency, Marine Renewable Energy as Alien: Social Studies of an Emerging Technology has only become more relevant. The project did not present a clear path for how to create a wave energy industry boom in Denmark, however, the analyses all point towards the fact that cooperation between entrepreneurs, policymakers, and the private sector is key to a potential breakthrough, says Brit Ross Winthereik:
- Individual entrepreneurs and inventors have not had much success cooperating, and policymakers have remained skeptical because there are no signs of a new Silicon Valley or Vestas on the horizon. The same goes for corporate Denmark. Even if investors became interested in the area, it would be difficult to determine where money should be invested. The people working in the field of wave energy do not cooperate to a significant extent, and the whole sector still seems to need organizing to ensure better political visibility, she says.
- A breakthrough for a wave energy industry in Denmark can only be facilitated by policymakers willing to take risks. There are no guarantees, only a lot of uncertainty.
Along with her colleagues James Maguire and Laura Watts, Brit Ross Winthereik has edited the book Energy Worlds in Experiment published in 2021. In the book, 20 energy scholars from within the social sciences and humanities reflect on politics and practice in the energy sector with an emphasis on renewable energy.
Energy Worlds in Experiment is available as a PDF-file and may be downloaded free of charge. Paperback copies of the book may be purchased via Mattering Press