Technology that can convert ocean waves into electrical power has been around for a while. Wave power projects dot the globe. This form of renewable energy has several key advantages over solar and wind — and yet it hasn’t quite taken off. Experts have an idea why, and how long a scale-up could take.
If wind energy has a graduate degree, wave energy is still in the first grade, Luis Vega, manager of the Hawaii National Marine Renewable Energy Center, recently told NBC News reporter Joseph Bennington-Castro. Vega and others in the field are testing a wave energy converter called the Bolt Lifesaver.
Besides the Bolt Lifesaver, other projects abound — with technologies that look drastically different. There is Carnegie Clean Energy’s balloon-like CETO technology in Australia as well as snake-like wave energy converters being developed by Wave Energy Scotland. So far, no one wave converter design has risen to the top.
R&D continues. Earlier this year, US senators backed a bill to reauthorize wave power research. The DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy pointed out today that the Water Power Technologies Office is funding early-stage research on “new, transformative [pumped-storage hydropower] designs that would improve sustainability and environmental performance and shorten development timeframes for new facilities.”
Wave power has advantages over wind and solar such as predictability and the ability to harness the waves 24-7, Bennington-Castro reported. Energy density is also an advantage. “Every meter of the California coast receives 30 kilowatts of wave energy” while “every square meter of a solar panel receives 0.2 to 0.3 kilowatts of solar energy.”
But there are major hurdles as well. They include engineering for a challenging, sometimes violent marine environment, according to Bennington-Castro. Deployment requires costly vessels and divers, too. In 2014, a wave energy project off the coast of Victoria, Australia, that was supposed to be the “world’s largest” was abandoned due to lack of commercial viability.
Public resistance is another factor. Several years ago, a wave energy project in Oregon was shut down by an opposition group claiming it would jeopardize ocean recreation, public safety, and the environment.
Experts told Bennington-Castro that developing wave converters that marry efficiency and economy could take a decade. Vega told the reporter that the timing depends on how much funding goes into developing the technology. Another expert said that, realistically, wave energy will ultimately only contribute about 6% of the total electricity in the United States, similar to hydropower.
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