French tidal energy firm announces major funding boost

EEL device in the test tank
EEL device in the test tank, current is moving from left to right
EEL team
EEL team; including Sylvain Delacroix, Astrid Deporte and Franck Sylvain from EEL in the front and Gregory Germain from Ifremer in the back
EEL device in the test tank, current is moving from left to right
EEL device in the test tank, current is moving from left to right

Late last year, the French tidal energy outfit EEL Energy announced that it had secured an impressive €3.7 million (£3.2 million) of financial support from the French authorities for the development of its next-generation tidal energy generator.

So, what tidal energy technology is the company working on?  How exactly does it work?  And what development and testing work will the new funding injection support?

The massive financial boost came in the form of a grant from the Bpifrance Public Fund, which is responsible for the administration and management of R&D and competitiveness projects run by the French Commissariat Général à l’Investissement (CGI).  Such projects are designed to support existing industrial sectors, or create new ones, via the funding of innovative and ambitious programs - and to bolster the prospects of French companies operating in up and coming markets by cementing long-term collaborative partnerships between industry and R&D labs. 

As Grégoire de Laval, Development Director at EEL Energy, explains, the new €3.7 million financing commitment follows hot on the heels of close to €3 million of equity raised in the middle of 2016.  Taken together, he reveals that both amounts will be used to cover the costs of a three-year project to develop a full-scale 1MW tidal prototype - including those incurred for design, construction and tests in a 'real sea environment.'

In common with most tidal energy devices, the EEL Energy machine generates power by converting tidal motion into energy.  However, whereas other tidal technologies are typically based on turbine technology, the EEL concept instead employs a novel rubber membrane material equipped with a chain of embedded electromagnetic converters.  This membrane - inspired by the characteristic motion of a swimming eel - undulates when positioned in the water, in the process capturing the linear force of tidal currents and transforming it into electricity.

The EEL team first began assessing the viability of a small prototype - located off the coast of Boulogne-sur-Mer - in 2011.  As part of these efforts, the company has carried out a range of tests of 1:20 and 1:6 scale versions at the Ifremer water tunnel facility - the only R&D and testing centre of its kind in the whole of France.

"This tidal machine, operating in shallow water and with currents of 0.7 to 2.5 meters per second - lower than alternative technologies - can be installed as close as possible to energy requirements," he adds.

In Laval's view, the new device looks set to generate a wide range of 'unique' technological, operational and financial benefits, including those related to what he describes as it 'outstanding performance.'  As a result of its large harvesting surface, Laval says that the EEL machine starts to generate electricity at low water current speeds - and its low weight and 'simple and robust' construction means that it can perform a 'natural' pivoting action, ensuring that logistics and maintenance operations should be much easier.

"[The EEL device] also possesses advanced environmental features, with no generation of CO2 or any noise or visual pollution - and its slow movement respects sea life," he says.

"The modular construction of the concept also means it is adaptable in size and can be applied to either sea or river currents," he adds.

Looking ahead, Laval is bullish about the prospects for the ongoing development of the novel technology, particularly following last year's 'good news' on the financial viability of the project.

"On the technical side, we also now have promising results, based on real tests, which confirm the very interesting yield of our device," he says.

However, despite such positive initial performance results, Laval admits that - in common with the developers of other similar marine energy technologies - the company must still face up to the significant challenges related to what he calls the 'high constraints' of the sea environment.  In addition to the challenges that salt water can present to developers concerned about product durability aspects like fatigue and corrosion, he also points to the inevitably higher maintenance costs associated with more difficult access to facilities in high seas.

"This is why we first worked hard on the design, in an effort to get it as simple as we can - with low weight to ease logistics coupled with a passive pivotal system and specific materials to get the highest standards of robustness," he says.

"We have also handled these challenges throughout hours and days of experimental tests in a water tunnel, and on different scales of prototype, to improve the device performances and to identify all the potential weaknesses of our device and get them fixed," he adds.

Describing the project as a 'collective venture,' Laval says that EEL has also worked closely with its partners, including the team at the Ifremer facility, as well as staff at Hutchinson - a global rubber industry firm - that he says contribute 'deep knowledge and experience in marine energy to the EEL technology development.'

Over the next five-year period, Laval says that EEL has ambitious plans for the commercial development of the EEL Energy device, and reveals that the company has targeted 'two major segments' over the 2020 to 2022 period.  The first of these is 'big utilities interested in tidal farms' - a market segment he says the company will be targeting with a 1MW tidal machine harnessing marine currents.

"The other segment is for smaller tidal devices - in the range of 50-100kW - potentially located in estuaries or rivers, and more focused on smaller energy consumers such as those in hotels, industrial areas or small towns that have more difficulty accessing the energy grid," he adds.

By Andrew Williams

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