Catching a wave

An innovative new technology utilizes 'wave power' to create an energy source much cheaper than gas, oil or electricity. But its creator is finding it difficult to attract investment.

shmuel ovadia 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
shmuel ovadia 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The sea is one of nature's greatest paradoxes. A base for both beach resorts and catastrophic typhoons is a powerful thing. So powerful, in fact, that it can potentially provide a major source of energy for the planet, according to Shmuel Ovadia. Ovadia, who has been working on sea wave technology for over a decade, claims to have developed a way to transform waves into a cheap and efficient form of energy. In 1997, he received a government grant to develop the technology. He built several models, but then a buoy fell on his leg during an experiment and crushed it. Hospitalized, he stopped research and development for a couple of years. Ovadia eventually changed his approach. Instead of dealing with government agencies, he decided to market his technology directly to other governments and private developers worldwide. He successfully convinced people that his technology could become the wave of the future. Today, as Managing Director of Tel Aviv-based SDE Sea Wave Power Plants, he says that he has Memorandums of Understanding and Letters of Intent to build sea wave power plants in more than 50 countries, including China, Cyprus, Monaco, Zanzibar, Chile and Spain. Because of worldwide electricity shortages, these countries are attracted to the cheapness and efficiency of his alternative form of energy. Energy experts predict that oil and natural gas will be financially viable for only the next 30 to 40 years. Soon, carbon dioxide emissions originating from natural gas and coal-fired power plants will likely be taxed because of their contribution to global warming. Currently, nearly all of Israel's electricity comes from fossil fuels, even though it has no oil wells and a limited resource of natural gas. If Israel fails to change its energy makeup soon, it is likely to face an energy crisis. Previously developed sea wave technologies were too expensive, had low productivity and failed to compete economically with fossil fuels. SDE, however, by optimizing sea wave motion even under adverse weather conditions, can purportedly build a one-megawatt power plant with $650,000 in capital costs - a low price, compared with thermal or wind energy, for example, which both have initial capital costs of around $1.5 million. One kilowatt of electricity would cost buyers two cents per kilowatt hour, less than solar, wind or thermal energy. Yet he has had trouble finding people to finance his projects. Ovadia has met with many major financial players, including Giza, General Electric and the main French electricity generation and distribution company, lectricit de France. It appears that nobody is interested in financing sea wave power, as long as it's a new technology. Yet every dollar invested in his technology will bring a return of 100 times or more, claims Ovadia. In Israel, he could be building plants worth over $2 billion, if only he could acquire the start-up capital. In order to promote a product in the global market, environmental technology companies generally need to show a solid working example of the technology in their own country, according to Dr. Ofira Ayalon, Senior Researcher and Coordinator of Environmental projects at the Haifa Technion's Samuel Neaman Institute for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology. Therefore, the government needs to do its part, help co-fund "green" high-tech projects and reduce the obstacles in getting a project approved in Israel. Ovadia, for example, has a contract to build a sea wave power plant in Ashdod with a 30-megawatt potential, but has been unable to move forward with the process because of government red tape. The government needs to step up to the plate and do its part in dealing with Israel's energy crisis, say renewable energy advocates. "We need a clear-sighted statesman to say this is of national importance and nothing will stand in its way," David Faiman, a solar energy expert and professor at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University, told Metro. Faiman sees the adoption of solar energy - specifically a technology called Concentrator Photovolatics (CPV) - as a major step toward solving Israel's energy crisis. Because of advances in solar technology, CPV could produce energy at less than $1,000 per kilowatt. That is comparable to coal or natural gas. If Israel started to replace its fossil fuel plants with CPV plants, building at a rate of one gigawatt per year, it would take 21 years to pay off the capital costs of the plants, he argues. Once the capital costs are paid off, the actual cost of generating electricity from solar will be 0.5 cent per kilowatt hour, Faiman predicts. Private funders, according to Faiman, could profit greatly from investing in CPV. "What would be in it for the small investor? The same thing as people who invested in oil wells in the 20th century," says Faiman. "Some became oligarchs, same now - some will become the "soligarchs" of the 21st century." CPV's could prosper not only in Israel with its large solar capabilities, but could also be a limitless export market, Faiman added. According to a 2004 study by the Samuel Neaman Institute, the global environmental market stands at $570 billion and is growing. Israel is especially suited to tap into that market. "We have the brains, we have the entrepreneurship, and we have the character," says Dr. Ayalon, author of the study. In 2004, Israel exported environmental products and services at around $300 million. The environmental market is 14 times larger than the biotechnology market and 15 times larger than the nano-technology market, the report stated. "The possibilities to grow in this market are huge and the Ministry of Finance can get a lot of payback through taxes if [Israeli environmental technology companies] can market abroad," says Ayalon. A report published in 2006 by the London-based research analysts New Energy Finance found that Israel is becoming one of the best countries for clean energy investors. The analysts estimated that Israeli clean energy technology companies have an immediate need of $210 million in venture capital. Israel is well-situated to develop these technologies because it spends more on R&D per unit of GDP and has more engineers per capita than any other country in the world, according to the report. The World Economic Forum's 2006-2007 yearly report ranked Israel first for its availability of scientists and engineers, second for venture capital availability, third for technological readiness and seventh for innovation. "There is a lot of capital available at the private level - and a lot of people who have the necessary vision to discuss a good thing," says Faiman. Progress, however, needs governmental support, according to Dov Raviv, CEO of the Jerusalem-based renewable energy company MST. "The problem of Israel is a national problem and will not be solved by market forces - it requires a major investment by the government to carry through a national program," says Ravid. "It is as important as our security." In Ashdod, sea waves crash into the port. With Shmuel Ovadia's technology these waves could theoretically be transformed into 30 megawatts of electricity. But until he can build a power plant there, the waves will wait.