Being a Change Maker: Harnessing Ocean Power

Stephanie Thornton, Cluster Manager, Australian Ocean Energy Group (AOEG)

The Being Group’s tagline is Enabling Human Endeavour so, wherever possible, we work with brands that do good, enable change and have an impact.

Today is Earth Day, an annual global initiative to protect and conserve the planet. Launched in 1970, Earth Day now involves more than 1 billion people, in more than 193 countries, to promote environmental sustainability and decarbonisation. The theme for 2022 is Invest in Our Planet.

We saw this as a perfect opportunity to find out what drives Stephanie Thornton, who works every day to do just that. The Being Group began working with Stephanie in 2018, in our start-up days of Being Agency, when she asked us to develop a brand and create a video for Australian Ocean Energy Group (AOEG). AOEG was formed to develop markets for sustainable ocean energy and facilitate collaboration throughout the wave and tidal energy industry.

How did you become interested in the idea of harnessing energy from the ocean?

When I was 6 years old my family moved onto a commercial fishing boat. My dad was one of the early commercial abalone divers in southern California. We lived on the boat for 10 years, so I grew up on the ocean, literally.

Through the next 25 years I worked in fields relating to the ocean and ocean conservation, with the culmination of that part of my career appointed as Chief of the US Government’s Marine Sanctuary Program in Washington DC. When I stepped away from that, I went to work for a utility company and started to learn about energy markets, transmission and distribution — all things I didn’t know much about. At the same time, a group of forward-thinking people secured $6 million in state government funding to form the Oregon Wave Energy Trust in 2007 — one of the first organisations in the US to promote ocean energy. I was its first Director.

That was my entrée and I’ve been working in ocean energy ever since.

I came to Australia in 2015. While working for a tidal technology company in Sydney, an opportunity arose to elevate the ocean energy sector’s voice through creation of an industry-led cluster. With support from National Energy Resources Australia (NERA) and Climate-KIC Australia, Australian Ocean Energy Group (AOEG) was launched in 2018 and has been growing steadily ever since.

And here we are.

What is ocean energy?

Have you ever been on the ocean, or standing on a beach looking out from shore, and thought: “Wow, this is so powerful. If we can generate energy from the sun and other renewable sources, why can’t we generate energy from the ocean?”

Ocean energy is about harnessing that power through a wide array of highly technical devices, to create energy — electricity, water or pressure — from that predictable and perpetual movement of water. Ocean energy technology captures the energy from either the movement of waves or tides.

How would you like to see ocean energy develop in the future?

Even though ocean energy technologies have been in development for over 25 years or more, we’ve reached the point where it’s now time to think about the application of those technologies. Up to this point there was narrow focus on just the technology. “Oh, isn’t this a cool device? How much power does it generate?”

But the real challenge in our sector is identifying the customer. A device is not going to be of any use unless you have a place for the power or water it generates to be delivered.

We still don’t have end users saying: “We need to decarbonise, we need to change our supply, let’s consider ocean energy.” It’s not even on their radar. Our work at AOEG is to shift that paradigm from technology push to market pull.

So, how’s it going?

We’re just starting the process to be honest. In January this year, we launched a market investigation into at least 17 market categories, to gain insight to what they know and don’t know about ocean energy, and what would be required for them to consider the adoption of an ocean energy system. This market intelligence is a world-first in our sector.

Even before the investigation, we identified four main focus areas that AOEG and other advocates need to tackle to increase adoption of ocean energy. These include building awareness, increasing accessibility, providing business and financial information to support affordability, and establishing a commercial project delivery system.

The blue economy market sector (e.g., coastal businesses, communities and industries) presents a large and immediate opportunity for wave and tidal energy to have a significant decarbonisation impact. A consideration for an end user is risk. They have to decide if they want to make a wholesale change to their energy supply or maybe just fix part of it. An end user may use the grid for the main processes they can’t risk interrupting, but they may be able to integrate an ocean energy system as a supplemental energy supply. Then they can treat it as a pilot project to learn how it works within their operations and progress from there.

I love the concept of energy islands which are being developed, particularly in France, Denmark and the Netherlands. They are simply amazing. They’re literally an island, with a fully integrated energy system — ocean energy, solar and wind all connected to supply gigawatts of electricity. It’s something really exciting that’s emerging, and of course ocean energy is part of that.

Do you see your work as important to the future of the planet?

Oh my gosh, critically important! I believe in our vision and feel that AOEG has the potential for extraordinary impact. Because it’s actionable, we can see and measure progress.

While our work is highly rewarding, it is also incredibly frustrating. We can see the opportunity, but as a tiny speck in the climate change discussion, acquiring the resources we need to do the job at the scale we need is currently elusive. When you don’t have leadership in government, business and communities sharing a similar vision, it feels like pushing a boulder up a hill.

But the only way from here is up. We are developing an Ocean Energy Marketplace in Albany, WA, as an innovation hub for ocean energy. Our vision is that the Marketplace will be a catalyst for ocean energy development. It will be a place where future end users can receive the tools, knowledge and expertise to develop their own ocean energy projects. It will elevate the impact we strive to achieve.

Even the fact you’ve chosen to tell our story here is an indication to me there is interest in new energy sources out there, and the more we talk about it, the faster momentum grows.

When I talk to people, there is strong individual support for ocean energy. What we need to do now is mobilise that, so there’s a real investment in this sector.

I’m working towards a day where ocean energy is as commercially viable as solar is today in Australia — where markets understand it and ask for it. It’s exciting, difficult, and important work.

If you want to engage in AOEG projects and help build the ocean energy industry, become an AOEG member here.

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