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The power of the Italian sea

Italy's role in the development of new technologies to produce energy efficiently from water.

by Maria Pia Rossignaud
15 July 2020
9 min read
byMaria Pia Rossignaud
15 July 2020
9 min read

The States General of the Economy, a series of meetings recently organised by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, was an opportunity to reaffirm the government's commitment to supporting the country's green and digital agendas. The push towards a definitive energy and ecological transition aims to abandon fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy. The government intends to formalise the incentives allocated so far in the national plan, so that Italy becomes a country of renewable energy sources and explores new sources such as green hydrogen.

Energy efficiency coming from the sea

The current focus is on producing energy from water, however, doing so involves complex technological processes. When rivers flow into the sea and saltwater meets freshwater, the difference in the circulating charge can be harnessed to produce energy (it is greater in the sea than in rivers).

A team of researchers, coordinated by Rutgers University, has developed a technology capable of generating energy from water efficiently. The results were presented at the 72nd annual meeting of the American Physical Society of Fluid Dynamics and reported in an article in the scientific journal, Science. The authors assert that energy generated from water could be a crucial resource for the future.

According to the data published in the magazine, 37 thousand cubic kilometres of freshwater pours into the sea globally. This amount of water could generate 2.6 terawatts (billions of kilowatts), which is comparable to the energy produced by 2000 nuclear plants. The revolution comes from a new membrane that could unlock its potential: if researchers can expand it, making it the size of a stamp, it could provide carbon-free energy for millions of people in coastal nations, where rivers meet the sea. 

The Funding and Italy

The first report of the European project "Ocean SET 2020" examined 11 countries and found that when it comes to investments in technological developments for marine energy, Italy ranks first in the Mediterranean and second in Europe, after the United Kingdom, with public funding of around €5 million per year.

Looking at this in more detail, the project highlights that public allocations in the countries examined amount to a total of €26.3 million, although only six of them (Italy, France, Ireland, Portugal, the United Kingdom and Spain) have adopted specific policies for harnessing the sea's energy resources. One of the EU's priority objectives is to reduce the cost per kWh of tidal energy from €0.15 / kWh in 2025 to €0.10 / kWh in 2030 and of wave energy from €0.20 / kWh in 2025 to €0.10 / kWh in 2035. On a technological level, 57 of the 79 research projects funded were for wave energy and 22 were for tidal energy.

There are five reliable prototypes in Italy, which are advanced in terms of technological development and are creating hundreds of jobs, four of these are for wave power and one is for tidal power.

Waves of energy

When it comes to systems for extracting energy from tides, the main technology consists of a turbine with a horizontal axis. At the moment, there is no prevailing system for wave power, leaving the way open for experiments with floating-point and oscillating water column systems.

The areas with the highest potential for generating energy from waves include the western coasts of Corsica and Sardinia, the Sicilian Channel, and the coastal areas of Algeria and Tunisia.

Italy is of international importance in the research and development of these systems, with test facilities in Pantelleria, Reggio Calabria, Naples and in the Adriatic. The data relating Italy were processed by ENEA (the national agency for new technologies, energy and the environment).

The company is actively engaged in the field of wave energy, together with the research institutes CNR and RSE (energy system research), with increasing efforts in systems for generating wave energy (PEWEC systems), climatological models and high-resolution tidal forecasts (Waves and MITO). The greatest availability for marine energy resources in Europe is on the Irish coast, but research shows that there is significant potential in the Mediterranean, in terms of energy production and technological development.

In particular, the potential for energy production in the Straight of Messina is 125 GWh per year, where currents reach speeds of over 2 metres per second. Favourable climatic conditions in our country, combined with scientific and technological capabilities, have enabled safe, economic tests to be carried out on hi-tech devices, allowing us to design cutting-edge and increasingly efficient systems for extracting marine energy from currents. 

MarEnergy

Eni is betting on this new source of clean energy, in line with its development objectives which combine solid financials with economic sustainability. This will lead to a significant reduction in carbon emissions, as part of the company's energy transition. Eni’s CEO Claudio Descalzi says: "The new organisation reflects the historical turn that Eni is taking. An irreversible path that will help us become a leading player in the production and sale of decarbonised energy products. Our new plan plots a path for the next 30 years, which is unprecedented in our industry. The fight against climate change and the need for sustainable development are recognised as priorities by governments, society, investors and companies and only those who pursue them tangibly and innovatively will be able to create long-term value. We want to be key players in a fair energy transition, we believe in this and it will become one of the cornerstones for our transformation."

It is precisely in this direction that Eni and the Politecnico di Torino intend to move to by renewing their collaboration and that has led to the creation of MarEnergy, a Research Centre consisting of the Politecnico's internal resources integrated by Eni professionals. This synergy led to the joint research laboratory set up by the Politecnico di Torino and Eni MORE lab, inaugurated on 28 September 2020 in the presence of the Minister of University and Research, Gaetano Manfredi, Eni's President, Lucia Calvosa, Eni's CEO, Claudio Descalzi, and the Dean of the Politecnico Guido Saracco. The MORE lab allows to further explore the study of marine energy sources, investigating not only wave motion but also offshore wind and solar energy, ocean and tidal currents and the saline gradient.

MORE Lab is located in the Politecnico di Torino and is complemented by two Eni’s facilities: the Marine Virtual Lab, located in the supercomputing HPC5 headquarters of Ferrera Erbognone, and Eni open sea test area in Ravenna, where the pre-prototype phase of ISWEC, the first system in the world for the generation of hybrid energy from wave and photovoltaic power, is under way.

In addition to Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna also in Sicily, the laboratory will collaborate with the Politecnico’s testing site in Pantelleria, where sea technologies are proven within an insular ecosystem, with an aim of testing the potential self-sufficiency of energy, with no impact on the landscape.

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ISWEC – The energy coming from the sea

ISWEC

The role of the Inertial Sea Wave Energy Converter (ISWEC), the world's first integrated wave and photovoltaic power generation system, is increasingly central. The plant has been in operation since March 2019 in Ravenna offshore and has demonstrated high reliability and ability to adapt to different sea conditions, thanks to its active control and regulation system. Data at hand, during the period of operation the maximum installed power rating of 50 kW was exceeded.

Eni’s CEO, Claudio Descalzi, stresses the importance of the MORE Lab: "Eni’s commitment in the development of key technologies for decarbonisation is further strengthened by the research led with Politecnico di Torino in the Marine Offshore Renewable Energy Lab. Our goal is to optimise existing technologies to make them even more efficient, competitive and therefore accelerate the industrialisation process of marine energies.”

"For our Athenaeum, developing innovative solutions in the renewable energy and sustainability sector in close collaboration with the industry – and therefore readily available for the market – is especially crucial” commented the Rector of the Politecnico, Guido Saracco. “The laboratories and research projects developed with Eni in the MORE Lab will be pivotal in the next years for their significant contribution in finding solutions for the decarbonisation and emission reduction targets set by the EU.”