During the 1970s, when the cold war was at its height, the global economy had begun to realize that the future was written in oil. While the major powers continued with their quest to secure more and more reserves of the black gold, a few countries decided to seek alternatives. Tapping energy from ocean waves was one of the many alternatives that were explored back then by countries like Japan, Norway and UK.
The war eventually was won by oil, as petroleum products went on to become the single most vital factor sustaining the fragile global economy of the present. As for the initiatives made in tapping wave energy, they failed to deliver economic supplies of electricity, thereby negating their credibility.
In India, power generation from waves was mooted as an efficient means to address the growing energy crisis by the Indian Institute of Technology – Chennai in 1982. India has a long coastline of 7000 kilometers and the amount of power that could be generated through wave energy plants was estimated at 40000 MW. Vizhinjam was chosen as the hot spot to put up the first Oscillating Water Column (OWC) plant in the world. It was also billed as a National Test Facility to study the feasibility of harnessing wave energy.
The plant was completed in 1991 after spending Rs. 99 lakhs. The plant was to generate 150kW of electricity on a continual basis, which would be transferred to the state's grid. The principle was to use the pressure difference created by the waves gushing into the plant chamber to turn the turbine and thus generate electricity.
The amount of power generated however varied considerably. During April – November the plant would generate only 75kW, and an even lesser 25kW from December – March. The only time the plant does work at its maximum level was during the monsoon months of June – September. Most times the amount of power generated was too low to be transferred to the state's grid.
The plant slowly went out of use over the years, except for a faint effort of a revival in 2004 when a move was made to utilize the plant to desalinate ocean water. The idea was put forward by National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), Chennai. The ocean water was to be desalinated through the process of reverse osmosis and the plant was said to have a capacity of treating 10,000 liters a day. However that project too never came through.
Vizhinjam wave energy plant was completely decommissioned and handed over to the Harbour Department by 2011.
The problem faced by the harnessing of wave energy was in building power plants that were big and long enough to convert the energy contained in the ocean waves into electricity in a significant manner. But building such huge structures along seashores are illogical due to their environmental impact and the sheer complexity involved. The country's renewable energy is now mainly met through windmills and solar panels, with wave energy more or less completely out of the picture.
The Vizhinjam wave energy plant was an idea incepted with the vision of being the first significant step towards providing the nation with a new generation mode of renewable energy. Whether because of the location or sheer bad luck, the plan was destined to fail. And Vizhinjam seems destined to remain as a small fishing harbor with immense potential, which is never to be utilized.