Economy

Carnegie’s ocean power surge

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Alan Burns believes he can help solve Australia’s green energy crisis. After a decade of R&D and $25 million in government funding, his company Carnegie Corporation is ready to turn its undersea power vision into a reality. By TIM TREADGOLD

By Tim Treadgold

Alan Burns Carnegie

Alan Burns believes he can help solve Australia’s green energy crisis. After a decade of R&D and $25 million in government funding, his company Carnegie Corporation is ready to turn its undersea power vision into a reality.

Harnessing the power of the ocean waves to produce electricity is one of the energy world’s holy grails. But it has also been an investment graveyard, with a number of wave-power projects failing spectacularly around the world.

But a small West Australian company is trying to change all that. For the past 10 years, Carnegie Corporation has been experimenting with a “sea-floor power system” conceived by its chairman Alan Burns, named a serial entrepreneur for his entrepreneurial adventures in mining and oil exploration.

The creation of Carnegie’s CETO system has taken more than a decade and more than $25 million in government grants. Now the company, which is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, must build a pilot plant and prove its technology can be commercially viable.

The story of the CETO unit (which stands for the “cylindrical energy transfer oscillating” unit) is a fascinating study in entrepreneurial perseverance.

Burns, a publicity-shy inventor who ran a stable of exploration companies in the 1980s including Magnet Metals and Stirling Petroleum, first thought of tapping the ocean’s power while scuba diving over a reef.

It was under the waves that the very entrepreneurial Burns (he has also tried his hand at blueberry farming and peat mining, and made his most recent fortune in the oil producer Hardman Resources) noticed the suction-like push-and-pull pressure created by passing waves – while also observing that he was safe from their destructive surface forces.

It was that “eureka moment” that led to the progressive development of Carnegie’s CETO system.

What Burns first imagined, and first told me in the mid-1990s, was how he wanted to find a way to construct a device similar to an oyster or clam, fixed rigidly to the ocean bottom with a rubber membrane on top. In theory, this membrane would rise and fall with the pressure from waves passing overhead. As the membrane moved it provided the motion to drive a turbine.

Great idea, but no prize. Technical problems made it too difficult to build.

Back at his drawing board in an office overlooking Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour, Burns and a team of freshly-recruited scientists chewed over the possible ways in which wave power could be safely tamed.

While they were doing this, on computer screens news flowed about spectacular wave-power failures off places such as Scotland and Victoria. In every case the problem was the same. Waves can destroy anything floating on the surface.

What Burns and his team came up with is essentially a fancy water pump driven by wave pressure and designed to push pressurised seawater through an onshore turbine, or through a seawater desalination plant to also provide fresh drinking water from the sea.

In theory, CETO units overcome the problem of destructive wave action by tethering part of the device to the sea floor, as best shown in this animation on on the website www.ceto.com.au.

CETO tests

On top of the sea floor mounted pump is a float that rises and falls with the pressure and energy movement of passing waves. A universal joint that connects the float to the pump means that there is flexibility for lateral movement as well as perpendicular movement. (The picture at right is Burns himself, testing one of the devises.)

In effect, CETO is a novel hydro-electric power plant, but one with immense potential in Australia, particularly on the southern coastline, which is washed by the near perpetual “circumpolar” Southern Ocean swell.

Carnegie’s managing director Michael Ottaviano says: “Australia has the world’s best wave energy. A study we commissioned estimates that wave power could generate 35% of the country’s energy needs.”

Carnegie’s system has absorbed an estimated $20 million in development costs so far, including a $5 million renewable energy grant from the Australian Government.

The next step in the decade-long research and development process is to build CETO 111 and install it in an area with much stronger wave forces. That site is likely to be in a 30,000 hectare offshore site allocated by the WA Government about 15 kilometres south-west of Albany on WA’s southern coast.

Final environmental studies are underway, with first site work scheduled for early next year. If all goes to plan, CETO 111 will also become the first of Carnegie’s units to pump seawater ashore, driving a small turbine and delivering small amounts of electricity.

A full scale CETO-driven power station generating 50 megawatts of electricity could be in production by 2011.

On the sharemarket, Carnegie has attracted a limited following, partly because of several changes in the ownership of the technology.

In order to attract financing in the early days, Carnegie raised capital on the London Stock Exchange. A major restructuring now means Carnegie is entitled to all future revenue generated in the southern hemisphere. A London company called Renewable Energy Holdings has rights to the northern hemisphere.

This messy corporate structure helps explain Carnegie’s low local profile and erratic share price, which has moved over the past 12 months between a high of 48.5c and a low in September of 11c.

Since hitting the bottom, and as interest grows in the planned CETO 111 trials off Albany (and the rest of the sharemarkets sags alarmingly) Carnegie has held its ground at around 15.5c, valuing the company at $68 million.

By this time next year, assuming the CETO installation proceeds as planned and the trials are successful, Australia might have a new source of green power – and all from that “eureka moment” that Alan Burns experienced while scuba diving.

 

 

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