Purpose: To date, very few studies have attempted to quantify the environmental impacts of a wave energy converter, and almost all of these focus solely on the potential climate change impacts and embodied energy. This paper presents a full life cycle assessment (LCA) of the first-generation Pelamis wave energy converter, aiming to contribute to the body of published studies and examine any potential trade-offs or co-benefits across a broad range of environmental impacts.
Methods: The process-based attributional LCA was carried out on the full cradle-to-grave life cycle of the Pelamis P1 wave energy converter, including the device, its moorings and sub-sea connecting cable up to the point of connection with the grid. The case study was for a typical wave farm located off the north-west coast of Scotland. Foreground data was mostly sourced from the manufacturer. Background inventory data was mostly sourced from the ecoinvent database (v3.3), and the ReCiPe and CED impact assessment methods were applied.
Results and discussion: The Pelamis was found to have significantly lower environmental impacts than conventional fossil generation in 6 impact categories, but performed worse than most other types of generation in 8 of the remaining 13 categories studied. The greatest impacts were from steel manufacture and sea vessel operations. The device performs quite well in the two most frequently assessed impacts for renewable energy converters: climate change and cumulative energy demand. The carbon payback period is estimated to be around 24 months (depending on the emissions intensity of the displaced generation mix), and the energy return on investment is 7.5. The contrast between this and the poor performance in other impact categories demonstrates the limitations of focussing only on carbon and energy.
Conclusions: The Pelamis was found to generally have relatively high environmental impacts across many impact categories when compared to other types of power generation; however, these are mostly attributable to the current reliance on fossil fuels in the global economy and the early development stage of the technology. Opportunities to reduce this also lie in reducing requirements for steel in the device structure, and decreasing the requirements for sea vessel operations during installation, maintenance and decommissioning.