Alan Burns made a fortune in the oil business. But as oil wanes, he’s convinced that clean energy will be—must be—the next big thing. And so this inventor has poured his fortune into a challenge far greater than finding new oil deposits: extracting energy from the ocean
Posted 09.25.2008 at 11:33 am
Multimedia Mogul: Alan Burns plans to leverage his expertise as an oilman to profit from this century’s critical resources: clean energy and freshwater. Theron Kirkman
Burns is one of an increasing number of oil entrepreneurs turned clean-energy advocates who are challenging the idea that there’s some great divide between how the old energy regime is run and how the new one will be. Like T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman who is building the world’s largest wind farm in the Texas Panhandle, Burns is confident that the market for renewable energy will be far bigger than the oil industry, and that the developers who overcome the technical hurdles to economical large-scale clean-energy systems will see huge profits. And he’s among those who suspect that the people best equipped to develop those markets and tackle those challenges are not academics or government researchers or young idealists with little real-world business experience. Rather, they’re people like him—people who know how to run a global business with huge inherent risks, serious engineering challenges, and markets that are growing larger by the day. His Perth company, Carnegie Corporation, now has about 40 employees, a power-generating prototype installed just off the coast of the nearby port town of Fremantle—and plans, Burns says, to become the world’s biggest clean-energy company.
FIRST TO THE BOTTOM
Around the world, dozens of wave-energy systems are under development. Some are fastened to vast cliffs at the water’s edge and harness the power of enormous waves pounding against the land. Others are laid across the ocean surface like giant water snakes, sucking in the power from moving surface waves, and still others are more like mechanical buoys that bob up and down in one spot on the water, anchored to the seafloor below. Like many other clean-energy technologies, these designs are slowly moving from prototype to commercial stages. None, so far, have proved themselves to be cost-effective on a large scale. But there are plenty of companies vying to be the first.
On paper, at least, wave power has several advantages over the current leader in renewable power, wind. Water is 800 times as dense as air, so in theory, more power can be produced with smaller farms. There’s more available open space in the ocean than on land, where wind farms are often competing with other development for space. Finally, whereas most wind farms have harvestable wind conditions about half the time, ocean waves never stop their movement toward shore. According to Philip Jennings, the head of the energy-studies department at Perth’s Murdoch University, “wave power has the potential to be as big as, or bigger than, wind power once the technology matures.”
In California last December, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company made the first commitment by an American utility company to buy wave power. The Aquabuoy system will be installed off the coast of Eureka in Northern California and should produce two megawatts by 2012; each megawatt can power about 750 homes. In May, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $7.5 million in federal funding to support the development of other water-power projects in this country, with the money to be distributed by year’s end. Wave power is up and running in Portugal and in Scotland. But worldwide, the industry is still in its infancy compared with wind power, and is riddled with mishaps. Last fall, for example, one of those $2-million Aquabuoys sank off the Oregon coast.