Making Waves

An Israeli inventor develops a plan to produce cheap, environmentally friendly electricity.

TA power station (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
TA power station
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It doesn't look like much, this thing lying dormant in the grassy driveway of Shmuel Ovadia's exceedingly modest offices in south Tel Aviv. Still, Ovadia insists, this bunch of plywood and rusting engines, bolted together in an old shipping crate, could save the planet. The box of parts, and the large metal arm lying on top of it, is meant to be stationed a few kilometers away, just off the coast. There, in the surf that endlessly laps at the shore, a set of Ovadia's buoys would exploit one of the world's most reliable - and most potent - sources of energy. The idea is fairly simple: Every wave on the ocean represents a significant amount of force; if even some of that tremendous energy could be harnessed, it could be turned into electricity. "They say that just 1 percent of the energy in the oceans could power the entire world," Ovadia says, with a raise of the eyebrows and a nod of the head, as if to stave off any "no way" reaction. It is, he assures, a viable goal. The tricky part of realizing such potential is finding a way to capture as much of that energy as possible and turn it into electricity in a safe and cost-efficient manner. Until now, the dozens of contraptions that have been tried - although tantalizing and inspiring - have proven unable to meet that challenge. Part of the problem lies in the sheer brute force of the sea. One apparatus, a 750-metric-ton device, was torn to shreds off the coast of Scotland as it was being put in place. And that was in relatively shallow water. Attempts to harvest the even more powerful currents farther out to sea and deeper down require complicated feats of engineering that make such efforts impractical in the near future. The beauty of Ovadia's system, he says, lies in its simplicity. Rather than try to channel the ocean's power, Ovadia wants to go along for the ride. His buoys lie atop the water, at or just off the beach. As waves raise the buoys, attached hydraulic arms, contract - turning an alternator, creating electricity. The entire process is fully automatic, and requires not a drop of fuel. "I don't need smoke-belching towers, I don't need turbines, I don't need anything polluting," Ovadia says. What's more, he adds, his company's zero-emissions, quiet power plants could produce commercial amounts of electricity while taking up just a 10th of the space required by coal-burning or natural gas-burning power plants. The lower infrastructure costs, combined with lower per-kilowatt production costs, mean that the original investment in an ocean wave power plant manufactured by his firm SDE would be repaid in five years - a fourth of the time that most conventional power plants need to "earn their keep." WITH ALL these advantages, you'd think potential clients would be busting down Ovadia's door. According to him, they are - and they are hailing from some unusual places. In addition to some general interest from companies and governments in Chile, Argentina, Spain, Cyprus, Monaco and other countries, SDE is in very serious negotiations with the government of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim state. "We are very interested in this technology," Dr. Faizul Ishom of the State Ministry for Development of Disadvantaged Areas told The Jerusalem Post. "We are an island country with a lot of beaches, so it could be very good for us, and for our environment too. We want to apply this. I have already talked with power companies about it." Ishom and other Indonesian officials have visited SDE's offices here, and they hope to return soon to finalize a deal. Initially, Ishom said, his country is looking to buy an ocean wave power plant capable of producing 100 MW, at a cost of $650 million. If that plant is successful, Indonesia would be interested in another one on the scale of 500 MW. Pakistan - the world's only nuclear-armed Muslim state and, like Indonesia, a nation that has no formal diplomatic ties with Israel - is also eager to have Ovadia's company build a power plant for its citizens, an official confirmed to the Post. Count India and Sri Lanka among the countries in talks with SDE, as well. Ovadia is focusing on Africa as a potential market, too. The general manager of the Zanzibar Electricity Corporation confirmed talks over a power plant between 10 MW and 100 MW in capacity. Tanzania, whose severely unstable electricity supply has crippled its already fragile economy, is eager to see a 500 MW plant constructed as soon as possible. Gambia, in a similar situation, paid for Ovadia to make a presentation in the capital. "One of our country's biggest challenges is that we have no reliable source of energy," Ebrima Camara, of the Office of the President, told the Post. "If we had, we could increase our potential to attract investors for industry and manufacturing. We really want to be able to give our people the ability to be self-reliant and productive, so if we can get a technology like this, which would make electricity cheaply and reliably, it would mean a lot for Gambia." Following what Camara described as "a very fruitful meeting," Gambia and SDE are negotiating over a 70 MW power plant in a deal that would be worth millions of dollars. FOR ALL this attention from the rest of the world, though, Ovadia lacks recognition here at home. "I used to get research grants from the Industry and Trade Ministry," Ovadia says, noting that his funding was cut in 2000, following a severe leg injury that kept him out of work for two years and prevented him from meeting deadlines that would have qualified him for further support. "Now," he says bitterly, "I'm just a pest to the government." What Ovadia wants, he says, is not money, but recognition. "Israel has maybe 10,000 meters of breakwaters along its shores. Those breakwaters could produce 10% of the country's electricity needs. If we could put our buoys on the breakwaters, they would not only produce electricity, but also act as a kind of shock absorber and lengthen the life of the breakwaters," he says, getting excited. "I can build a plant here, for example, that will produce 100 MW of electricity. This is not meant to answer all the country's needs, but it can definitely provide a good chunk. And with oil selling for more than $100 per barrel, it's definitely worth considering." That there is very little consideration of the potential in SDE's system vexes Ovadia. The Israel Electric Corporation "pretends to be interested in my technology," he says, "but in reality it sees us as a threat." IEC did not respond to that claim, but acknowledged it had no interest in SDE or ocean wave energy. A spokesman for the Office of the Chief Scientist of the Industry and Trade Ministry said the body was continuing to invest in local research and development of alternative energy options, but had no particular interest in Ovadia's ideas at this time. Ovadia claims he is doomed by bureaucrats swayed by lobbyists for conventional energy firms offering kickbacks, payoffs and the promise of cushy "adviser" jobs in the power industry upon leaving office. "It's no wonder that, when you ask officials about my ideas, they come up with excuses like, 'This isn't the time for this sort of thing,' or 'It isn't convincing enough,' or 'The technology isn't ready yet.' They prefer to protect the interests of those who sell coal or who operate coal-powered plants," Ovadia says. "Why? Those are deals worth billions. You think someone would risk losing that by supporting my little buoys?" Ovadia doesn't name names. Is he paranoid? Making excuses for his failure to inspire his countrymen? Either is possible, or both. Or, it may just be that he is exhausted from the efforts of trying to infect bureaucrats with the exuberance of a dreamer. AT 56, with his hair dyed black and agitation exaggerating the lines that middle age and frustration have carved into his face, it is clear that it hasn't been easy for Ovadia, being told over and over again for decades that his idea wouldn't work. It was as a soldier on leave, waiting outside the old Yaron Cinema in South Tel Aviv, that he first considered the potential of ocean waves. Sitting on the railing as waves rolled toward his feet, Ovadia was mesmerized. There must be a way, he figured, to turn that hypnotic motion into something useful. It took Ovadia, who pulls out forms detailing his 17 different patents, more than a decade to develop his foggy notion into concrete reality. After completing his service in the Engineering Corps, he worked in a plant manufacturing motors, learning about pneumatics, hydraulics and electricity. Eventually he struck upon the idea of a way to put the waves' own energy to use. The theory behind wave energy exploitation goes back ages; bringing theory to practice often takes ages. As he brought SDE to life, Ovadia built and tested eight different models of his system, starting with one so small that it fit in his bathtub. He made each of the models larger, until they required a shipping container full of water, and eventually tested his current system in the Jaffa Port. Along the way there have been numerous disappointments, including what he calls obstruction from the Israeli establishment and what he vaguely refers to as "some troubles with unscrupulous partners." Then there are the nagging questions - about whether the relatively gentle waves licking at the country's Mediterranean coast are strong enough to make this technology worthwhile; about the ability of SDE's buoys to survive and operate in the brutal environment of seawater, and about the environmental damage that could result from installing a power plant of this type on the shore. Ovadia has heard these complaints, it seems, a thousand times before. Yet he patiently addresses each issue. No matter where an ocean wave power plant is, Ovadia explains, it would produce different levels of energy during different times of the year, as waves are higher during certain periods and lower during others. Likewise, waves are higher and more powerful in some parts of the world (coastal areas on the North Sea, for example) than others (such as the calmer beaches of the eastern Mediterranean, to our disadvantage). True, he notes, the potential benefit in relation to other methods of producing electricity would not be as great here as in Britain or Spain, but it would still be significant. And his power plants would be economical to run even in areas where weaker waves predominate. "But I'll tell you something," he says. "Even in the Kinneret, I can make energy." An SDE power plant, Ovadia continues, "can produce electricity at a fraction of the cost of coal, a fraction of the cost of solar and a fraction the cost of wind. Run one six months to eight months per year, and you still come out ahead." Further, he says, "When are waves the highest? In the summer and in the winter. And when is the demand for electricity highest? In the summer and in the winter. It's a perfect match." What about reliability? Compared to the other wave energy systems being developed around the world, Ovadia's invention seems downright flimsy. What his design has going for it, he says, is that the buoys actually see less exposure to seawater than the other systems. There is a built-in self-correcting mechanism whereby, should a large wave overwhelm the buoy, it would flip over and then "wait" for lower tide to flip back. Unlike other systems deployed far out to sea, the moving parts in his power plants are easily replaceable. Also, the plants can be maintained easily, and they can be run automatically. One person, he says, could run five plants at a time, if necessary. Lastly, what of the environmental impact? "Strictly speaking, the beach would be damaged slightly if we installed these," Ovadia says. "But on the other hand, people die from the pollution caused by power plants burning fossil fuels. Which would you prefer?" Besides, with such little interest here, he notes wryly, "It isn't as if we're going to take over Frishman Beach tomorrow." FORTUNATELY, OVADIA says, beaches needn't be marred. In his preferred scenario, a breakwater would be built first, and the buoys attached to it. A place like the Ashdod Port, where a 3,350 meter-long main breakwater and a sea wall 800 meters long already exist, would be an ideal location for SDE to prove its technology. Just in the past few weeks - after years of fruitless lobbying all over the country - Ovadia has won over the Ashdod Municipality to the merits of such a plan. "The mayor and the city engineer have looked over this idea thoroughly, and it seems quite worthwhile to us," said David Hartum, deputy director-general of the Ashdod Municipality. "We are suggesting building on the breakwater in the port. We like the fact that it's ecological, as ocean waves do the job instead of oil, and that it involves a one-time cost to produce electricity. We are definitely interested." The only thing standing in the way of the country's first ocean wave power plant, then, is the Israel Ports Authority, whose approval for the project is required. A spokeswoman for Shlomo Breiman, director-general of the Israel Ports Authority, said he was looking into the idea, but would have to review thorough studies on the potential environmental impact on the port basin - and any potential impact on the port's operations, especially - before giving the project a green light. Should SDE win a contract to build a power plant in Ashdod, it would certainly mean vindication for Ovadia - proof that, where other concepts have failed, his, like his buoys, has stayed afloat. But for the most part he is looking to other markets, focusing on underdeveloped and energy-poor countries in Africa and Asia. It is there that he expects to see his first power plant built - he estimates - within two or three years. "When I was in Gambia," he recalls, "we went to visit a little village. At one point our meeting was interrupted by afternoon prayers... There I was, this Israeli Jew, surrounded by Muslims praying intensely. "These people," Ovadia says, leaning forward as if to reveal a secret, "are in desperate need of energy in order to improve their lives. Well," he says, leaning back in his chair again, "I will be their messiah. I will save them."