Professor and climate expert on mysterious Danish project: “Marine energy is Denmark’s next big export opportunity”

15. juni 2022 kl. 09:51
Professor and climate expert on mysterious Danish project: “Marine energy is Denmark’s next big export opportunity”
Japanese company IHI Corporation completed a three and a half year long experiment with a prototype of an underwater turbine that the company calls Kairyu in February. It generates energy from ocean currents. Illustration: IHI Corp./NEDO.
One of Denmark’s greatest climate experts, Professor Sebastian Mernild, throws all his weight behind a newly developed marine energy project without wanting to reveal more.
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Solar energy and wind power are not enough if Denmark and the rest of the world are to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, says one of Denmark’s biggest climate experts, Sebastian Mernild.

“I don’t think we can solve the climate challenges by covering the planet only with sun and wind power,” he says in an interview with Ingeniøren.

In an op-ed published in Information, Sebastian Mernild has thrown all his weight behind new, patented Danish technology that uses ocean currents to create energy. He writes that the two developers behind the kinetically driven energy systems have developed a prototype that can be put into production and set up within the next six to eight months. And thus “contribute nicely towards the Danish 70 percent target”.

Sebastian Mernild, professor at the University of Southern Denmark, at a press conference held last autumn on the occasion of the UN’s panel on climate change, IPCC, presenting its Sixth Assessment Report. Illustration: Ida Marie Odgaard/Ritzau Scanpix.

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According to Sebastian Mernild, the technology is price competitive with wind and solar technologies and could become Denmark’s next big export opportunity in renewable energy.

“In Denmark, we are in a great position to utilize the currents in both the Little Belt, the Sound, and the North Sea to produce the green energy we need,” he writes in the op-ed.

Sebastian Mernild is a professor of climate change at the University of Southern Denmark and the head of the SDU Climate Cluster, and his support has attracted attention because he is also a lead author of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report. But him not wanting to unveil how the technology works, how big the potential is, or what the energy will cost has spawned criticism.

Here he elaborates on his op-ed in an interview with Ingeniøren:

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Why do you not think sun and wind energy are enough to reach the climate target for 2030?

“With the energy we need at a global level, we need to think of new and different forms of renewable energy if we are to have any hopes of reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement. The rest of the world is not doing enough. Today, globally, there is a big gap between what we are doing and what we should be doing politically. So more renewable energy is needed. Right now, we are heading towards at least a 2.8 degree temperature rise, which is far above the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

You are normally known as a professor in the field of climate change. What is it about this particular project that has made you so excited?

“With the assessments we have made in the UN’s panel on climate change, I can just see that in relation to the policies pursued, there is a big gap between purely political action and real reductions. Climate must be understood in a global perspective. Even if we build wind turbines and solar panels in Denmark and in the North Sea, we are far from reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement. That is, we should and have to innovate.”

“I have nothing against solar panels and wind turbines at all. We need to have more of them, but we should put them in places where they are not a nuisance to people. But if there’s potential in the currents, it’s really strange that we aren’t looking more in that direction. Also because sun and wind are unpredictable in a way. We don’t know when the sun will shine and when the wind will blow or how much cloud cover there will be. But we know that currents move all the time.”

It is precisely security of supply that has contributed to Sebastian Mernild’s enthusiasm for the new technology.

Because the energy density in water is greater than in wind, and currents can be calculated, the kinetically driven energy is “cheap, green, constant, and secure in supply”, he writes in his op-ed. Thus, the systems have the potential to become “a key technology for future green energy production”.

Wave energy on the ocean surface has been tested for a number of years. But experiments with marine energy from ocean currents below the surface have lagged behind. Therefore, there are fewer concrete figures on the efficiency of ocean currents.

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One of them stems from a 3.5-year trial conducted by IHI Corporation in Japan and completed this February. They used a prototype of an underwater turbine that according to Bloomberg had a capacity factor of 50–70 percent. By comparison, the figure for onshore wind turbines is 29 percent and for solar power plants 15 percent.

By agreement with the Danish developers, Sebastian Mernild did not want to comment on either the technical aspects of the project or the financial calculations. Because of this, he found himself in a bit of hot water.

What do you have to say to the critics who say it was a bit too abstract that you could not come up with something concrete?

“I don’t want to say anything, because then I would say more than I should. On the one hand, people are curious. But on the other hand, they get angry because they can’t find out anything about it, and then they immediately think it’s a ‘bird in the bush’. I would never come forward with anything if I didn’t know there was potential in it. Otherwise, I would also put my own credibility at stake.”

Marine energy is competitive with wind and solar power

However, he lifts a bit of the veil on the profitability of the project for Ingeniøren.

With these projects, it sometimes comes down to the cost. IHI Corporation had calculated what it would cost if such a facility was put into commercial use. Their take was DKK 1.08 per kWh. In comparison, it is DKK 0.92 for solar and between DKK 0.65 and DKK 0.86 for offshore wind facilities. In terms of price, it does not seem to be that competitive.

“For them, it wasn’t. I don’t know how they have built it up and how they transport the energy, so I can’t comment on whether theirs is more expensive or cheaper than this one. I can only say that the calculations that this company has made indicate a profitable business.”

But is it competitive with wind and solar power?

“It is.”

How can it be that the people behind the project are not coming out to say anything about it?

“It’s because they’re running a vigorous campaign to raise money for it. And therefore they don’t want to come out with the technology or anything else in relation to it so others don’t steal the idea.”

Usually, if something is a good business, the money will eventually come.

“Yes, that’s what they think too.”

What are we talking about in terms of price? How much power can the prototype produce and what does it cost? What will the electricity cost per kWh?

“I can’t get into that.”

The Minister for Climate, Energy and Utilities Dan Jørgensen assesses in his Energy and Utilities Policy Report 2022 that “existing wave and ocean current energy technologies require further development to become commercially sustainable”.

The developers of the Danish prototype for marine energy production have not yet revealed how it is designed. The Japanese prototype—Kairyu—resembles an aircraft with two counter-rotating propellers and a buoyancy adjustment system located centrally on the fuselage. It generated 100 kW. Illustration: IHI Corporation.

No financial interest in the project

Sebastian Mernild says that the developers behind the Danish project have previously worked in companies that used parts of the technology. The entrepreneurs themselves have put together and further developed the technology over a 10-year period. They have discussed the technology in collaboration with an unnamed Danish university and verified that it works with a prototype. They have been granted a patent for the technology and are currently trying to raise millions for a pilot project and a test site.

Sebastian Mernild himself became involved in the project while he was the managing director of the Nansen Center four to five years ago, when the two developers behind the technology reached out to him and asked for his evaluation. Since then, he has contributed scientific knowledge to the project in his spare time, he says. He adds that he has not been paid to contribute to the project, and that he has no investment or financial self-interest in it.

“I have been involved in it purely scientifically and to improve the visibility of the project. But they are the ones that own it and have shares in it. I have no financial interest in it. I just think it’s exciting because I can see a huge potential in harnessing the power of the currents. I want to use my knowledge to help transform our society much faster than what we see today.”

You wrote that a prototype could be set up within six to eight months. But it probably takes a while from the time it is tested until it is possible to turn it into a commercial project?

“No, because this technology has been developed over 10 years. That is, all parts of it have been thought through, and it has been tested. Financing is needed to get started with it. So that’s what they’re working on now. But once they get it, it can move fast. The tests that need to be done can be done quickly. And then it shouldn’t take long to get the parts that are needed and assemble them.”

What are we talking about in terms of a commercial timeframe? We also have a 2030 target.

“It can be rolled out fairly quickly. Our assessment is that it will be able to contribute nicely towards the Danish 70 percent target.”

Is it intended to be produced in Denmark?

“The idea is at least that they want to produce it in Denmark. These people are very concerned about it also benefiting the Danish society. Why shouldn’t we benefit from what we produce ourselves? I also think we are all aware that there is a huge potential out there in world as well. We don't just have to think in a Danish context.”

The technology is “not a nuisance to anyone”

In the op-ed, Sebastian Mernild writes that a clear advantage of utilizing marine energy is that the technology “is not a nuisance to anyone—its neighbours, animal and plant life, or ship traffic. Quite the opposite, in fact, because it will for example not be possible to bottom trawl in the areas where energy production takes place, which will benefit seabed biodiversity. At the same time, it will not cause noise for its neighbours or disturb their view, as large wind farms and photovoltaic plants do today.”

Now you say it will not bother anyone. But I looked at the research, and the impact on nature is still somewhat unclear, simply because not enough research has been done on ocean currents. There was an international study from 2021 where it was concluded that there were impacts on the environment in the form of noise, possible collisions with animals, habitat changes, wave modifications, and shifts in sediment deposition. It could perhaps lead to some behavioral changes in animals when they seek food, and perhaps also change the coastline. So there is an impact on the environment after all?

“Now we’re talking very hypothetically, but it also depends on where the technology is placed. If it’s placed in a coastal area, it may be so, but if we choose to place the technology further away, where there are strong currents at e.g. 50 meters depth and place them 12 meters above the seabed, just as an example, so it doesn’t touch the seabed, but benefits from the strong currents that exist there, then there may be minimal environmental impacts.”

How do you know there are minimal environmental impacts there?

“If you place something on the seabed, you are likely to get some deposition issues and challenges there. It could disturb vegetation or crustaceans that live in the seabed, but if you have something that is pulled up in the water column and that can spin around with the water... There are minimal harmful impacts. At least that is our assessment of it.
I’ve participated in the assessment, but I’m not a marine biologist. And you can't avoid doing an environmental impact assessment of it if it’s to be set up in some specific geographical locations.”

Sebastian Mernild’s ideas for places where the technology could be set up in Denmark are the North Sea, the Sound, and the Little Belt.

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