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Are Waves the Next Great Source of Clean Energy?

Are Waves the Next Great Source of Clean Energy?

Wave power, ocean energy, and wave energy are all terms used to describe an energy resource hidden in the movement of ocean waves. Attempts to harness this power have been ongoing for many years. But finding the best way to do this is proving to be a challenge.

The U.S. has the potential to produce up to 2 trillion kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy a year — the equivalent to 64% of the total U.S. electricity generation in 2021. Could wave power be the next great leap in renewable energy? Or are there simply too many challenges in the way?

Projects in Israel and Finland are proving that wave energy can power communities. It’s possible that you could also have access to wave-powered electricity in the future. However, getting there won’t be easy, as funding and support for newly emerging wave energy companies is desperately needed.

What Is Wave Power?

As the wind blows out at sea, it creates waves on the ocean’s surface. Those waves carry the wind’s energy, which we can potentially capture and convert into usable electricity.

Researchers are investigating several ways to capture energy as waves raise and lower the surface of the ocean. They are testing equipment that can be placed on the water’s surface or anchored to the sea floor to be moved with the waves’ motion. The best placement for this equipment depends on finding the strongest waves, and that can vary by ocean region.

Most of the equipment that researchers are testing uses some form of hydraulic pump to generate power, but the size, shape, and movement of the technology are being tested in a variety of ways.

Wave Farm Technology

One company, CorPower Ocean, has deployed a “wave farm.” It consists of multiple floating buoys set out in rows in the open ocean where depths are over 40 meters. As the buoys move with the motion of the waves, hydraulics inside the buoys convert that movement into energy.

Each buoy, or “converter,” has a diameter of 9 meters and a height of 18 meters and must be anchored to the seabed. When grouped, buoys can generate three to five times more power than an offshore wind farm using the same sized area of ocean.

CorPack, Ocean Wave Farm
CorPack, Ocean Wave Farm – Credit: CorPower Ocean

To avoid harming the environment, companies that deploy such large-scale systems must run vigorous assessments and undertake detailed planning before installation. In addition to positioning the technology in the optimal location for capturing wave energy, they must assess impacts on nearby residents and wildlife. It is essential to identify and protect the wildlife that the installation may affect, such as fish, dolphins, and endangered corals. They must also consider any impacts the installation would have on nearby residents and businesses, such as blocking sunlight or obstructing natural views. The assessments enable the company to minimize or avoid any problems before installation.

CorPower Ocean tested various systems before designing the current wave farm design.

“The complexity of the process has led to a host of designs, including writhing snake-like attenuators, bobbing buoys, and devices mounted on the ocean floor. Some devices generate electricity on the spot and transmit it via undersea cables to shore, while others pass the mechanical energy of the wave along to land before transferring it into electrical energy.” —CorPower Ocean

Whatever the system’s design, the goal remains the same: converting wave movement into a consistent energy supply that matches or complements existing energy supplies.

Challenges for Wave Energy

Various factors have delayed the progress of wave power technology. But the ocean itself poses the greatest challenges. Successful technology must be able to withstand damaging storms, rough tides, and corrosive saltwater while providing a consistent energy supply.

Yet the sea batters some of the equipment into pieces and some technologies fail due to leaks or weak materials. Research teams using multiple technologies and trialing large projects in remote areas can quickly exhaust their funding.

Some of the other challenges these teams face include:

  • Finding optimal placements for their tech
  • Adapting equipment designs to use solely non-corrosive materials
  • Maintaining large devices that are out at sea
  • Quickly repairing these remotely located devices

Successful Deployments of Renewable Wave Energy

CorPower Ocean buoy
Credit: CorPower Ocean

It’s predicted that by 2050, wave energy could provide the equivalent of 10% of all of Europe’s current electricity needs. With this kind of potential, it’s encouraging to note that, despite numerous challenges, teams across the world are making progress.

AW-Energy, Finland

A green energy research group based in Finland, AW-Energy has created a product known as WaveRoller. A huge, hinged panel, the system attaches to the seabed and can be connected directly to the on-shore electricity grid.

In 2019, AW-Energy installed the first commercial-scale WaveRoller near Peniche, Portugal, where it began feeding electricity into the Portuguese national grid. Since 2021, the company created WaveRoller WaveFarms of 10 to 24 WaveRoller units.

The WaveFarm project is currently funded by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund to create an industrial-scale operation that can create a complete and stable infrastructure for utility companies to purchase.

WaveRoller, wave power technology
WaveRoller – Credit: AW-Energy

AW-Energy reports that this technology can “provide about seven times more nominal power generating capacity than a wind turbine in a similar sized area.” This is a significant amount of renewable energy that could potentially replace the electricity we currently get from fossil fuels.

Eco Wave Power, Israel

Eco Wave Power, based in Israel, generates wave energy and sends it directly into the electric grid. Known as “floaters,” these large horizontal units sit on the sea’s surface and are attached to existing coast-line structures, such as piers or jetties. The floaters have a moveable arm that contains a hydraulic piston. As the floats move up and down with the motion of the waves, they compress and decompress this piston that drives a hydraulic motor and produces energy.

Floater wave power technology system
Floater system – Credit: Eco Wave Power

Floaters are easily accessible for maintenance and can be elevated above sea level quickly to avoid damage during stormy weather. They can also be installed fairly quickly and easily.

This technology has great potential to transform the global renewable energy sector – no matter where it is based. The available resources across the world’s coasts are huge. For example, in California, the annual electricity demand is approximately 292 terawatt-hours (TWh), yet the available resource from wave energy on its coast is around 328 TWh. With companies creating easily transferable technologies, communities around the world can benefit from their successes.

Eco Wave Power set up its initial station at Jaffa Port in Israel. Through government funding, they were able to expand their operations and became the first wave energy power station in Israel to connect to the electricity grid. This station has been in operation now since 2014 when the group signed a Power Purchase Agreement with the government of Gibraltar and the Gibraltar Electricity Authority. They opened the first commercialized grid-connected project in Gibraltar in 2016 and it is still in operation.

Wave-Powered Energy Progress in the US

The potential for wave energy globally is significant. Scientists estimate that it could fulfill the world’s annual electricity needs if fully harnessed. In order for the U.S. to benefit from wave power, there needs to be a greater response from the government to support the use of wave technologies along U.S. coasts. While no current wave power strategies are currently in place, there are some indications that support for this renewable energy source is starting to appear.

US Dept. of Interior Clean Energy Plans

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s (DOI) plans for clean energy indicate that wave and tidal projects will be an important consideration for the future of clean energy, and will “help communities across the country be part of the climate solution while creating good-paying union jobs.”

To date, there are no specific outlines as to how or when the U.S. will implement wave energy. However, there are significant wave energy research projects underway that are backed by government agencies.

US Dept. of Energy Funding for Wave Energy

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy, with backing from the DOI’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced $25 million of funding for eight new wave energy projects. The projects will use these funds to overcome issues and test various technologies to ensure the successful deployment of future wave energy projects.

New wave technologies will be tested as part of the PacWave project . Under this project, a new wave energy test facility, known as the South Test Site, is being constructed in Oregon. Upon its anticipated completion in 2024, the site will be used to test a wide range of wave grid-connected energy devices. This project aims to achieve the following:

  • Test energy converter designs for remote areas or small, local energy grids;
  • Develop converter designs that can be either connected or disconnected from the electricity grid; and
  • Perform research and development related to environmental monitoring technologies, instrumentation systems, and other technologies. (energy.gov)

This project represents a strong commitment between the government and large research groups to make wave energy work. There is also a drive behind this move to make wave energy commercially viable with existing energy infrastructure. If successful, this would accelerate decarbonization goals and support the government’s aim to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

What Can You Do?

Wave energy has the potential to supply up to 20% of the U.S. electricity mix. How can we help implement a change and get those who make the decisions to take this solution seriously?

While scientists and engineers continue to learn and expand technologies, the best support they can get is through funding, grants, and opportunities to work with big businesses. As consumers, the best support we can offer is to champion them — talk about them, share their progress, and encourage those with power to adopt a better way to supply our energy.

Support the research projects. Find the new tech developers and the scientists who are working hard right now to bring fully developed wave energy systems to the utility giants. Most of them have social media channels, subscriptions, or contact forms on their websites. The more promotion they get, the more we raise awareness that their technologies are ready to go.

Contact your local representatives. Share research and evidence with your local, state, and federal legislators. Ask them to support this crucial new technology.

Make a career in environmental innovation. If you are or want to be an engineer or designer, look for opportunities to make a difference and use your talents in wave energy. If you’re in the sector already, consider novel ways to raise awareness — like these examples of Lego models used to demonstrate wave rollers.

Could Waves Power Our Electric Grid?

Replacing our current energy sources is crucial to the future of our planet. With advances in renewable technologies, we have seen a slow but steady improvement. So far, solar and wind have been the leaders in the clean energy sector, but wave energy shows the potential to be the missing link we’ve been seeking.

Although many of us already utilize renewable energy sources, we can’t rely on them 100% of the time. Solar and wind energy, for example, cannot provide a consistent, strong flow of power when there is bad or severe weather or poor/no light. However, as waves provide a consistent energy source that is over 5 times denser than wind or solar, combining these resources will create a more stable clean energy supply.

Wave power could reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and stabilize our energy supply. But as research and development are still ongoing in this field, it’s difficult to predict if or how we might see that happen.

What we do know though, is that as governments and communities across the globe continue to search for routes to decarbonize and reduce climate change, renewable resources like wind power will be key to reaching those goals.

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About the Author

Becky Mckay is an experienced journalist and writer who follows the latest green trends and sustainability news. Writing for GreenMatch.co.uk, she has helped thousands of readers to find environmentally conscious solutions to many household issues, like home heating and energy expenses.

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