SA tech co. harnessing Cape waves for energy – Impact-Free Water

When discussing clean energy solutions, wind and solar often steal the spotlight. However, there’s another potential source of energy that’s worth exploring—wave energy. Some scientists believe that, if fully harnessed, wave energy could theoretically meet the world’s electricity needs. However, technologies needed to harness wave energy are still in the developmental stages. In South Africa where we are surrounded by two vast oceans, a tech company called Impact-Free Water is working on a solution to produce electricity from waves and their solution could also provide fresh water. In an interview with BizNews, The Founder and CEO of Impact-Free Water, Simon Wijberg said his company aims to compete with other renewable sources in terms of cost but has the added benefit of providing energy 24/7 and there is a reduced need for storage. He and the Business Director of the company, Anton Berkovitz highlighted the challenges of limited funding available in South Africa for wave energy solutions and said it forced them to develop smaller units which turned out to be beneficial as it is easier to scale and made their system more commercially viable.Linda van Tilburg

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Excerpts from the Interview

From an initial focus on desalination to energy from waves – Simon Wijnberg

So, we have a vast amount of energy in the form of waves around our coast. We had some huge waves come through the other day wiping out many of the businesses along the eastern southern coast of South Africa. Our attention is to use that energy in a productive way. It has many very attractive aspects to it that would provide a more baseload type energy to our customers. We’ve tried to focus on simple energy, and simple technology to provide the power as directly as possible from the waves to provide a product. So initially, we have been focusing on desalination, direct desalination using the energy of the waves to drive our pumps directly and at the moment we are also looking at providing electricity from the system, but instead of necessarily providing fresh water to have electricity as an option. 

Motivated by environmental and humanitarian concerns 

I’ve always been passionate about diving, and as an oceanographer, I’ve been researching wave energy worldwide throughout my career. Additionally, I spent some time in Indonesia back in 2000, exploring the possibility of starting a dive charter business. It was during this period that I was profoundly affected by the environmental damage I witnessed and its impact on my career. I observed how island communities were severely affected by water resource challenges, often requiring water to be transported over long distances, negatively impacting their lives.

Motivated by both environmental and humanitarian concerns, I decided to return and apply my understanding of the problem to create a solution. I enrolled in a master’s program in Applied Science and collaborated with the Institute for Maritime Technology in Simon’s Town and got their support in developing a technology that could harness wave energy to provide water to isolated indigenous communities.

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Success after ‘chucking a unit into False Bay’ 

We successfully constructed a system and conducted tests in their pools. This caught the attention of an American investor with expertise in water-related matters, who remains a part of our company today. His additional investment allowed us to upgrade our existing infrastructure in their workshop and we literally chucked this in the ocean to see how it would fare and we got very impressive results even in low energy waves that you’re finding in False Bay. Astonishingly, we achieved pressures of about 85 bars.

Our success impressed the Water Research Commission, from whom we had sought funding. They provided further financial support, enabling us to collaborate with our partners in Epping, J B Fabrications to develop an industrial-scale version of our previous design. In 2015, with assistance from the Technology Innovation Agency and funding from them, we successfully demonstrated direct desalination. Essentially, we utilised wave energy to pressurise water through a reverse osmosis membrane, resulting in the production of fresh water, achieving our primary goal.

Since then, we have been dedicated to advancing the technology to industrialise it further. Our mission extends beyond providing water to communities; we also aim to support specific industries such as the abalone industry, which requires substantial quantities of seawater for inland farms. This includes addressing challenges like red tides and providing essential filtration. Additionally, we cater to their power needs, not only for water circulation but also for aerating the water within their farms.

That is where we are at the moment. We are in the process of developing the third iteration of our technology and are quite excited about implementing the system and the water in the next couple of months. 

Catching energy from waves 1000s of km away 

Essentially, our system is fixed to the seabed, whereas the previous system was tethered to a buoy on the surface—a weighted buoy that captured the boat’s orbital motions. The system we’re currently developing focuses on utilising the ‘surge’ aspect of the waves. This refers to the forward and backward components of the wave, which are abundant. Unlike the ‘swell’ component, which consists of waves originating from far away and is particularly exciting for wave energy collection, as it transmits energy thousands of miles from where it was generated to where it eventually breaks on beaches.

In essence, we have the advantage of collecting both locally generated wave energy, driven by local winds, and the energy transferred from distant winds into the water. This results in a more consistent form of wave energy compared to solar, which is available only during the day and mainly on clear days, or wind energy, which requires wind to blow. In a sense, we benefit from both local and distant energy sources. 

Producing pressurised water for electricity, industry applications, desalination, hydrogen production – Berkovitz

We did patent the second iteration, but for our current target market, we believe the new iteration will be a more viable commercial alternative. So, we are working to finalise this one and then take it to the market. We have received a lot of interest from the abalone industry, and there’s also some interest from commercial entities along the coast. Essentially, we see ourselves as producing pressurised water, which can be used along the coast for various purposes, including electricity generation and industrial applications, desalination, and green hydrogen production. We will collaborate with desalination partners for this. The new version we want to roll out will be the commercial version, and it will be ready to go as soon as we’ve proven this one. 

Costing the same as solar and wind, but runs 24/7 – Wijnberg

Our target is to generate energy, particularly electricity, at competitive rates when compared to other renewable energy sources. It’s essential to remember that we produce energy during peak load periods, unlike some other sources. When evaluating the cost of integrating electricity into the grid, we must consider it on a 24/7 basis, factoring in the average cost along with storage and associated expenses, which are more prevalent in wind or solar solutions but not as necessary for us. Taking all these factors into account, we aim to compete favourably in terms of cost. Moreover, if you also consider the benefit of having access to water, such as on an abalone farm, where you can utilise both power and water, you essentially get two resources for the price of one.

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Challenges of developing wave technology in South Africa

Developing wave technology in South Africa has been challenging, primarily due to funding constraints. Unlike some of our overseas competitors, who benefit from substantial budgets reaching into the hundreds of millions of euros and have large teams working on more extensive projects with established permanent infrastructure, we haven’t had those resources at our disposal. As a result, we’ve had to adopt a resourceful and adaptive approach.

To overcome these financial limitations, I initially collaborated with the Institute for Maritime Technology, which is conveniently located on the coast and offered both ocean expertise and access to the ocean. Back in the early 2000s, the regulatory landscape was less restrictive, and we didn’t require extensive environmental impact assessments or research permits to initiate projects. It was a simpler process, as we could rely on the permissions they already had.

However, circumstances have evolved significantly since then, with increased emphasis on environmental legislation. This has led to more complex and costly procedures to deploy technology in the water. Consequently, South Africa presents financial challenges for us.

To build our teams and make progress, we’ve had to negotiate agreements with partners who share a long-term vision. Many times, these partners have provided their services at cost or even voluntarily. Our journey has often been a labour of passion, with us dedicating our time and effort without immediate financial compensation.

Advantages of smaller units to deal with storms, more commercially viable 

Wijnberg: Essentially, it’s a matter of putting systems in place that should, in the worst-case scenario, not fail. We have backup systems as well. To be fair, we haven’t actually had a system go through these extreme conditions yet, and only time will tell. But it’s a sobering moment when you consider the power of this energy. We are thinking about these possibilities, and the systems we’ve deployed have endured numerous events. However, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s always some level of risk involved due to various factors. That’s why we’ve designed our technology with multiple backup systems in place to address such challenges. Instead of relying on one large system to do all the work, we have opted for multiple smaller systems. Additionally, as a rule of thumb, larger systems tend to be more vulnerable relative to their size. Scaling down offers advantages, but it also comes with challenges in terms of capital and maintenance costs. So, it’s a constant balancing act to optimise these factors.

Berkovitz: Our concept is rather than build bigger, if you need more energy or more water, we put more pumps into the water, more of our units. So as long as there is space in the ocean, we can add more and more and then just link it via pipelines and then take a few big pipelines to shore. That enables us to keep the system at the size that we believe is optimal for the wave conditions. And then the client requirement just determines how many we put into the water. 

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