The Future of Wave Energy

Wave energy may still contribute to the pool of renewable energy despite its share of challenges.

  • 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
  • "Renewable" is a narrative of science journalist Jeremy Shere's cross-country investigative quest to discover the people and places behind the evolving alternative energy industries.
    Cover courtesy St. Martin’s Press

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.”



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