ONE kilometre off the Connemara coast, not far from Spiddal, a rather innocuous looking device is floating in the choppy waters.
At first glance, you'd think it's some sort of diving spot or a mooring but look closer and you'll spot a small wind turbine and more technical equipment.
This machine is a wave energy converter - a quarter-scale prototype that could play a huge part in Ireland's attempts to become less dependant on oil and gas reserves.
For a year-and-a-half, this Ocean Energy buoy has been able to withstand the harsh weather conditions of the western seaboard. Unlike hundreds of other experiments around the world, it hasn't suffered any physical problems and continues to generate electricity. Trials suggest each buoy can generate a maximum 1.5 megawatts (MW) of electricity - enough to power 300 homes for a year.
The energy output of one buoy is equivalent to that of a standard land-based wind turbine but the big advantage of ocean energy over wind energy is that wave power is entirely predictable. Wave behaviour can be forecast days in advance. Furthermore, the buoy "looks like a fishing boat on the horizon", according to one onlooker. "It doesn't blight the landscape."
For years we bemoaned the fact that we were doomed as an industrial nation due to our lack of natural resources. Now, Ireland is being hailed internationally as a ideal location for the wind and ocean energy industry.
Ocean Energy, the company who developed the wave energy buoy with Sustainable Energy Ireland and the Hydraulic Marine Research Centre (HMRC) at UCC, claim the wave energy sector could lead to the creation of 4,000 jobs and generate up to €1 billion for the country while cutting Ireland's C02 emissions by 750,000 tonnes.
Tests on the buoy were validated by the HMRC and represent a major breakthrough for Irish technologists in the search for viable alternative energy.
UCC senior lecturer and HMRC director Dr Tony Lewis has worked with Ocean Energy from the outset and says Ireland has incredible potential for wave energy generation.
"Such buoys could be dotted all over the Irish coast but there are limitations in that they need to be able to link up to the electricity grid. If the grid isn't accessible in a particular point, wave energy can be ruled out. However with the billions that are to be invested into modernising and expanding the grid, this will become less of an issue. There is no reason why this country could not become a world leader in wave energy generation devices," said Dr Lewis.
The Government has given up to €12 million to third-level research last year. They have also set targets that by 2012 and 2020, 75MW and 500MW of energy will come from the ocean. An Ocean Energy Development Unit is planned under the Programme for Government.
The Ocean Energy buoy is based on a failed Japanese product. It was first developed at a wave tank at UCC and then enlarged and re-tested at a bigger tank at the Ecole Central de Nantes in France. The 28 tonne prototype was put to sea in December 2006 and has spent 9,000 hours at sea - without damage.
Ocean Energy Commercial Director, John Keating says: "Ireland is now at the forefront of wave and ocean energy development. The announcement by Energy Minister Eamon Ryan of substantial investment in the ocean energy sector is an acknowledgement of the work being done."
Ocean Energy is to develop a 650 tonne full-scale wave energy converter which they hope to put to sea in late 2008. If their success to date continues, it could be a landmark in Irish energy production.
"This country has the capacity to be an energy exporter. It's a huge challenge but there's no reason why is should not happen as we could easily provide for Irish needs and sell on the rest. We have more than enough capacity if the sector is structured properly," said Mr Keating.