Updated: 3 days ago
Exploring what is stopping this non-intermittent renewable technology from plugging into the grid right now
Hydroelectricity is almost as old as generated electricity itself – and people have used water to propel watermills and other applications for thousands of years. While these have been done using flowing water from rivers and creeks, there is another reliable form of water-based power: waves.
There are shorelines around the world that have constant wave activity, much more constant than any wind (with the exception of the katabatic wind, but this occurs only in certain polar topography). Waves have the potential to create reliable, large-scale carbon-free electricity in coastal areas that often lack other renewable resources – so what is hindering their development and implementation?
This is the second entry in an ongoing collection of informal case studies looking at the current state of different sustainable tech solutions. Some are ready to use, some require more funding, and some have a complicated position, as we previously discussed with nuclear SMRs.
The goal of exploring these case studies is to highlight the importance of clear and informative communication with industries, governments, and the public to get the technologies with the best chance to make the world a more sustainable place to market – whether they involve carbon-free energy, plastics reductions, food production, or other ideas.
Here at Linq Consulting, we specialize in three things: helping sustainable tech projects obtain funding, helping these projects manage their operations, and providing effective communication to ensure successful projects can contribute to sustainable solutions in the real world.
We are exploring some of the most promising examples of emerging technologies that require help in one or more of these three areas in an effort to shed some light on the challenges and opportunities that exist – while highlighting any areas that can benefit from our expertise.
Below is our second informal case study and exploration of a renewable energy technology that should become a part of the global push for realistic full-scale electrification.
What is Wave Energy?
Wave energy is a form of renewable, carbon-free electricity generation that comes from the kinetic motion of ocean waves. These can be harnessed in a variety of ways, including shore-break waves, rising and falling swells, and other wave movements.
The first generation of ocean energy technologies were developed over 100 years ago. The first known patent to use energy from ocean waves dates back to 1799 and was filed in Paris by Girard and his son. An early application of wave power was a device constructed around 1910 by Bochaux-Praceique to light and power his house at Royan, near Bordeaux in France. Wave energy got a new interest in the 1970s during the oil crisis on 1973. In 1973, members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) decided to put a prohibition on oil exports, which in turn caused people to look for alternative energies. These new pioneers included Stephen Salter, famous for inventing the Salter's Duck (or nodding duck), which converted wave power into electricity.
Image of a nodding duck (Thorpe, 1999) [ref]
Wave energy has the potential to be one of the most consistent sources of renewable energy, yet so far has been notoriously difficult to capture cost effectively. Despite the unique challenges wave energy poses, waves have tremendous benefits that can fill in the gaps of our current renewable energy sources.
Unlike wind and solar, waves are constantly moving and therefore they can produce energy 24/7, although the energy level does vary over time as the weather changes. Waves provide a more consistent power source compared to wind or solar.
An average wave on the US West coast contains around 10 kW of power in each foot of wave crest. This means that a one-mile section of coastline will receive enough energy to power 40,000 homes. With the appropriate equipment, this energy can be converted into electricity and added to an electric utility power grid. According to Science Direct, waves at the world’s coastlines together have enough energy to provide as much 80,000 TWh of electricity per year if they could be efficiently tapped.
However, as solar and wind power grow, this other renewable energy source with vast potential — the power of waves — continues to lag far behind. One thing holding up deployment of marine energy is uncertainty over how devices may affect marine ecosystems. But progress is now being made as governments and the private sector step up efforts to bring marine energy into the mainstream.
Types of Wave Energy Technology
There are multiple different technologies used for wave energy, with five main types currently being either deployed or discussed for deployment: Absorbers, Attenuators, Oscillating Water Columns, Overtopping, and Inverted Pendulum devices.
Contrasting wave energy technologies [ref]. Note that the ‘inverted pendulum’ is more commonly known as the oscillating wave surge converter.
Absorbers are the most common type of wave technology. It is designed to extract energy from the rise and fall of the waves with a buoy. Once the energy is extracted it is then converted into electrical energy with a linear or rotary generator.
Attenuators capture energy from wave movement by being placed perpendicular to wave crests, which causes the attenuator to continuously flex and unflex along connected segments. Movement from this flexion is then transferred to hydraulic pumps which convert the movement to energy. Attenuators are one of the most direct uses of converting wave energy into electricity.
Oscillation Water Columns (OWC)
OWCs are partially submerged enclosed structures. The top of the structure, which is above the water, is filled with air, forcing incoming waves to be funneled into the bottom of the structure. When these are funnelled through the structure, the flow causes the water column to rise and fall with each wave, causing the air in the top of the structure to pressurize and depressurize. This movement pushes and pulls air through a connected air turbine at the top of the structure, converting air movement – from wave movement – into electricity.
Overtopping features a ‘wave lift’ over a barrier which fills a reservoir with incoming water from waves that pass over the barrier. This water is then drained through a hydro turbine, making it very similar to a conventional hydropower dam, except that instead of a river it utilizes reliable wave movement.
Inverted Pendulum devices use the motion of waves to move a hinged paddle back and forth underwater. The motion of the paddle drives hydraulic pumps, which drives electric generators. It is relatively simple and is one of the more direct conversions of wave energy into electricity.
Waves Farms in Operation
Wave energy is relatively new, but it seems that there has been a lull in creating new projects since a peak period around 2010. Whether this is due to decreasing interest or lack of needed investment, there are only a few countries that currently have or are installing wave farms. These areas include Portugal, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States – and the only countries that have expressed interest in potentially developing new wave farms are Russia and Italy.
The very first wave farm, the Aguçadoura Wave Farm, was built in Portugal about 3 miles offshore to the north of Porto. It was designed to use 3 Pelamis wave energy converters and had an installed capacity of 2.25 MW. Unfortunately, the timing for Aguçadoura could not have been worse: it was officially opened in September 2008 – just weeks before the financial collapse from the worldwide economic crisis that hit Portugal particularly hard. It was shut down soon after it went online.
The UK has two functional wave energy operations: one off the coast of Scotland and one off the coast of Cornwall involving the University of Exeter, which allows for up to 40 MW of electricity generation – enough to provide up to 7,500 households with power and save around 300,000 tons of CO2 in the next 25 years.
Australia has two wave farms that are currently under development off the West coast and near Portland, Victoria. Both projects are targeted to cost upward of $65 million. There is also a GreenWave device off the coast of Southern Australia.
The United States was to have a wave farm off the West coast by Oregon. The Reedsport farm was supposed to be installed in 2013, but due to legal and technical problems, the project came to a halt.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Wave Energy
Wave energy has a large potential with oceans covering 71% of the Earth’s surface, making it very accessible on a global scale. Wave energy also has many different positive aspects. First, the energy is green. Harnessing wave energy doesn't emit any harmful gases, and it can easily replace energies that do, such as using fossil fuels. Second, the energy is renewable. Ultimately, the energy is caused by heat which is emitted from the sun, and this energy will not be disappearing any time soon. Third, there is an incredible potential in wave energy. For every meter of wave along the shore, the energy density is between 30 kW and 40 kW. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) analyzed the potential, and for the U.S. alone, there is a potential of about 2,640 TWh/y along the continental shelf edge. Fourth, wave energy is reliable. Solar always needs the sun, and wind energy always needs the wind to work. Since waves are essentially always in motion and are never interrupted, it's a reliable and more stable source compared to the other main renewable energy sources.
However, as with any energy resource available, there are negatives as well. Wave energy effects the environment. As with wind farms being an eye-sore, wave energy could cause conflicts with appearance of oceans, which in turn could conflict with tourism and local acceptance. It is also currently unclear on how harvesting wave energy affects marine life. Because of these, installations on the coast and land facilities are held to higher restrictions on size and location for wave energy farms. Wave energy also has issues in terms of cost. It still is in the early stages of development, so costs of wave power are still fairly high compared to other forms of renewable energy technology. Wave energy devices also require regular maintenance, which is a significant added cost.
Overall, wave power has some disadvantages as of now, but the potential is enormous.
What is Needed to Make Wave Energy More Mainstream?
Current regulatory and permitting procedures must be updated for this technology. And the environmental impact of withdrawing large amounts of wave energy must be studied further.
Besides powering the electricity grid, wave farms could also be used in powering a variety of offshore applications. Our project team is interested in helping to secure funding for developing wave farm designs tailored for such energy needs. For example, an interesting application is developing smaller scale wave farms that address the energy requirements for offshore water desalination processes. These solutions may push forward water desalination technologies that could in turn help address the global water crisis.
Over the past two decades, several types of wave energy devices have been developed and deployed. There have been commercial-scale wave farms deployed in Australia and Europe, but none has been put online in the US.
For ocean energy to scale up, some gaps in the field’s knowledge still need to be filled. In the future, wave farms will not be a collection of individual generators. Instead, they will be a complex cyber-physical system and require interdisciplinary tools.
What kind of funding is available for wave energy projects?
Adequate funding can not only accelerate the implementation of technologies such as wave energy, but can also be the difference between just being able to explore their validity or not even moving past the prototype stage in the lab.
Potential Horizon Europe Funding
The FP7 and Horizon 2020 were the main research and innovation funding programmes of the European Commission’s lighthouse energy research policy, the Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan).
In cooperation with national governments, the Commission’s SET-Plan defined priorities and objectives for renewable energy research. Funding was made available through seven-year programmes such as Horizon 2020. There was a 50% increase in ocean energy funding over the second half of the program, with €78m awarded by FP7 from 2007 to 2013 and Horizon 2020 awarding over €117m to the sector from 2014 to 2020. In FP7, €28m was awarded to projects looking solely at wave technology. A further €28.5m were awarded to “general” projects, whose applications can benefit a range of ocean energy technologies. Over the past 10 years, the EU has invested over €375m in ocean energy research, development, and innovation (RD&I), through a multitude of funding programmes. Ocean Energy Europe (OEE) ensures that European funds address the needs and are adequately designed for the sector.
Looking to the future, Horizon Europe continues funding research and innovation in 2021 with a total budget of €95.5 billion for the next 7 years. Like its Horizon 2020 predecessor, it supports ocean energy research, development and innovation. Calls are both specific to the sector and of broader relevance.
OEE engages on behalf of its members with the European Commission to ensure that Horizon Europe is aligned with the needs of the industry. A new Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda has been released by the European Technology and Innovation Platform for Ocean Energy (ETIP Ocean), describing the different ocean energy R&I actions that require funding in the coming years.
At the moment, there is one dedicated call in Horizon Europe devoted to wave energy ‘Demonstration of wave energy devices to increase experience in real sea condition’, an Innovation Action with €15 million in funding, expected to fund one project.
Other European Funding Opportunities
United States Government Funding
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced up to $27 million in federal funding for research and development projects to convert energy more efficiently from ocean waves into carbon-free electricity. This funding opportunity aims to advance wave energy technologies toward commercial viability and supports the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to build a clean energy economy that will create good-paying jobs and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
High Net Worth Individual Funding
With carbon credit generation possible from these projects – and the associated income – wave energy could prove to be a great potential investment opportunity for high net worth individuals. As of the time of writing, there were no publicly confirmed high-level investments in any of the aforementioned wave technologies. It remains to be seen if this is a viable source of funding.
Wave Energy Technology Summary
Overall, the main takeaways from the current state of wave energy are:
There is a great potential in areas that can highly benefit from renewable energy, as well as being a great addition to electrification grid increases that are much needed
Safety is great, while the downside is taking away marine coastal areas, much like wind or solar farms take up space
It is already in place in some areas, but still lacking mainstream appeal
Public perception is lacking; not a very popular form of tech (though it has much fewer issues than nuclear or other challenging technologies)
Wave uptake needs to occur fairly soon to help the world get on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050. Assuming the strategy of mass electrification is the best route to net-zero, the global electricity grid needs to expand by several times its current capacity to meet demand; nuclear SMRs (or some other form of baseload electricity, such as fusion, which are both less likely at this moment) are necessary to reach the installed capacity needed.
How to find out more about wave energy technology
We at Linq Consulting hope that this informal case study on our second featured sustainable technology provided a valuable overview of a promising route to carbon-free emissions. Wave energy certainly has the potential to play a large role in decarbonization of the global energy system – and increased uptake is very possible indeed.
For further in-depth reading on wave energy technology, we recommend these resources:
If you have any questions about wave energy or any related subjects contact us here or send us an email. If you are currently developing a project that involves this or another type of sustainable technology and would like to discuss potential funding options, we can help you secure funding from a variety of sources.
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