pelamis wave power

Credit: Pelamis Wave Power

Pelamis, long a leading player in the wave energy industry, has gone “into administration,” akin to Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The fall of the Scottish company, announced on Friday, was a blow to Scotland and a sign of the tremendous challenges wave developers face – but it might also signal a necessary winnowing of the incipient industry’s wide-ranging technologies.

Seemingly acknowledging both those realities, the Scottish government, without referring to Pelamis, on Saturday said it would establish Wave Energy Scotland, a “wave energy technology development body to encourage innovation in the industry.”

Details about the research and development initiative were to come this week, but in a brief statement Energy Minister Fergus Ewing touched on the “lack of design convergence in wave energy, with many different concepts in development,” and said “the wave energy sector must evolve further to gain the confidence of investors.”

Pelamis Wave Power dates back to 1998, and in 2004 it made history when a commercial-scale prototype of its snakelike wave energy converter sent power to the grid, a world first. But the company’s concept – semi-submerged cylinders strung together with power-harnessing hinged joints, each a potential breaking point in the most violent seas – always faced the challenge of survivability.

Pelamis in June boasted of hitting 10,000 hours of grid-connected operation for its two Pelamis P2 machines at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney. But the company wasn’t confident enough to leave the devices at sea in all conditions; having been first connected in October 2010 and May 2012, respectively, the P2s spent far more time offline than they did on. In 2013, E.on, the big German energy company, withdrew from a joint project with Pelamis, citing the slow development of wave energy technologies.

On Friday, Pelamis said that it had “been unable to secure the additional funding required for further development of the Company’s market leading wave energy technology.” KPMG was called in to administer the company’s affairs, leaving Scots shaken.

pelamis wave power2

Credit: Pelamis Wave Power

“As a Scottish world leader Pelamis have been one of the icons of the marine renewables industry, so we are absolutely gutted at this setback,” Neil Kermode, managing director of the Orkney test center, said in a statement. “It is all the more galling when we know that marine energy has the potential to be a major supplier of power to the UK. But just like anybody who has been to sea, we know how hard it is out there, and trying to build a new power source was never going to be easy.”

It’s not just UK developers who are discovering that. Earlier this year, the leading U.S. wave energy company, Ocean Power Technology, took a tumble, pulling out of ballyhooed projects in Oregon and Australia. The key to long-term success, said one U.S. industry leader, is learning from these setbacks.

“You hate to see this happen to a company like Pelamis, which broke a tremendous amount of ground in the industry,” said Reenst Lesemann, CEO of Oregon-based Columbia Power Technologies, which recently signed a contract with the U.S. Navy to deploy a device that he describes as something of a hybrid between the Pelamis attenuator and the OPT point-absorber.

“But any emerging industry with a variety of technological approaches will go through a process like this,” Lesemann went on.  “Wind in its early days had a whole range of concepts, but now it’s all turbines with three blades. We still have a lot of differing approaches, but it’s inevitable for wave energy technology to coalesce.”