The Future of Wave Energy

Wave energy may still contribute to the pool of renewable energy despite its share of challenges.
By Jeremy Shere
February 21, 2014
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Harnessing wave power and converting it to electricity at a cost competitive with fossil fuels, though, has remained elusive. For roughly the past century, hundreds of inventors, entrepreneurs, and schemers have tried and mostly failed.
Photo by Fotolia/Galyna Andrushko

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Renewable (St. Martin’s Press, 2013) by established science journalist Jeremy Shere is a lively narrative of a cross-country journey investigating alternative energy industries. The following excerpt from chapter 22, “The Power of Waves,” touches on the history of wave energy and the potential for its future use.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Renewable.

“The opportunity exists for Oregon to establish itself as the leader in wave energy and become the national center for wave energy research and commercial demonstration,” reads a mission statement on Embracing the opportunity, the statement adds, will result in copious benefits, including an economic boost for coastal economies, opportunities for the state’s robust but underutilized metal fabrication sector, and a shot in the arm for Oregon’s renewable energy industry.

Harnessing wave power and converting it to electricity at a cost competitive with fossil fuels, though, has remained elusive. For roughly the past century, hundreds of inventors, entrepreneurs, and schemers have tried and mostly failed. Even during the fuel crisis of the 1970s, which generated significant interest in and funding of alternative energy, wave power technology made relatively little progress compared to solar, wind, and biofuels. A central reason for wave energy’s minimal progress, according to MIT professor of engineering and wave expert Chiang C. Mei, is that while waves harbor copious energy, they’re also unstable and unpredictable, making it exceedingly difficult to design a wave energy converter that will actually work at sea. “It’s one thing to build and test a device in the lab in a controlled setting where the waves are of uniform size and frequency,” Mei says. “But in the ocean, where waves come in many different shapes and sizes, the devices haven’t performed as well.” Plus, due to their size — Wave Power Technology’s PowerBuoy is around 150 feet tall by 40 feet wide and weighs 200 tons — and the need to anchor them to the ocean floor, wave power machines tend to be expensive. (Each PowerBuoy costs around $4 million.)

Today, though, concerns about climate change and the depletion of fossil fuels have rekindled interest in renewable energy and generated considerable interest in wave power. In 2008, the world’s first commercial wave farm went live off the coast of Portugal, using technology designed by the Scottish wave power company Pelamis. (Due to technical difficulties, the farm was deactivated a mere two months later and has not yet come back on line.) In 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded $37 million to fund twenty-seven ocean power–related projects (including Ocean Power Technology’s Oregon venture). Aquamarine Power, Ocean Power Technologies, and other companies (including Pelamis, Verdant Power, AWS Ocean Energy, Wavegen, and Finavera Renewables) have second-generation and in some cases even third-generation devices in development.

Busch, for one, is bullish on the prospects for wave power. “Ocean energy is at the precipice of commercialization,” Busch says. “The technology is undergoing rigorous testing and in some cases is already generating power on commercial scales.”

But even if the current crop of wave energy devices prove seaworthy and able to compete with fossil fuel-generated power, other hurdles remain. As with wind turbines and solar arrays, no single wave energy converter produces enough energy to match a conventional fossil fuel-burning power plant. A single Pelamis device, for example, generates enough electricity to power approximately 500 homes, compared to a medium-sized coal-fueled power plant, which can power tens of thousands. Future wave farms, then, will most probably be relatively small-scale ventures pumping electricity to nearby grids supplying coastal towns and cities. To approach conventional utility-scale power generation, a wave farm would have to commandeer large swaths of ocean — a prospect that gives pause to fishermen and others working in ocean-dependent industries.

Consequently, regulatory challenges remain in Oregon and elsewhere. Before deploying its devices, Aquamarine (and other wave power companies) must secure seabed leases and permission to install on-shore power stations from the Oregon Department of State Lands — a process dependent on the still-evolving specifics of the state’s territorial sea plan, which has been in committee since 2008. Although Busch is optimistic that the leases and permits will come through, he acknowledges that convincing dozens of regulatory agencies to green-light the project will take some doing. “It’s a chicken-and-egg issue with the agencies; they want to know how wave power devices will impact fish, for example, which is something we can’t know until we get the devices in the water, but they want that data before moving forward,” he says. “That’s maintaining the status quo, which is unacceptable from my perspective. Once we get large devices in the water and mea sure the impact, then we can begin answering questions and moving forward more quickly with other deployments.”

Although Aquamarine CEO McAdam wishes the time line were shorter, he recognizes the need for caution on the part of the state, and people’s apprehensions about new energy technologies. “When you introduce a new, unfamiliar device into the world, people will be concerned about its safety, and industry has to appreciate that,” he says. “It’s our job to educate people about the benefits of wave power and of renewable energy.”

From Renewable: The World-Changing Power of Alternative Energy by Jeremy Shere. Copyright © 2013 by Jeremy Shere and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press. Buy this book from our store: Renewable.

Jeremy Shere is a science writer who has written and produced for some of public radio's top nationally syndicated science programs, including Sound Medicine, Earth & Sky, and A Moment of Science. His work has appeared in Talking Points Memo, Reuters, Matter Network, The Jerusalem Report, Bloom, and Reform Judaism, among others. Shere teaches journalism and magazine writing at the School of Journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington.

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