The vast expanse of the ocean, as wind sweeps across its surface, transfers enormous energy into the waves below. These waves hold boundless potential for renewable energy generation that could contribute to the world’s ever-growing energy needs during the transition away from fossil fuels in the coming years.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that waves along the United States’ coastlines could generate approximately 2.64 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Harnessing this “blue power” could potentially meet 60 percent of the nation’s yearly electricity requirements and supply 18 million homes, as indicated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado. The Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and the East Coast boast particularly abundant wave energy resources. But how can we convert the turbulent seas into electricity to fuel our cars, homes, and daily lives?
A plethora of wave energy conversion devices (WECs) has been invented by scientists to capture and utilize ocean wave energy, including advanced buoy-like systems and undulating mats beneath the water. However, as Michael Lawson, lead researcher of the water power research group at NREL, states, there is no consensus yet on the most efficient design for a commercially viable wave energy converter. Lawson likens the current state of the wave energy sector to the early days of wind power in the 1970s when companies were still experimenting with various turbine designs. Since then, the wind energy industry has advanced significantly; in 2022, it contributed 11 percent of the U.S. electricity generation. Lawson explains that determining the most effective solution for utility-scale power generation, the three-bladed wind turbine, took decades of research.
At present, extracting power from the ocean poses several technical challenges. Experts must ensure that the WECs have environmentally friendly coatings that can endure the constant battering of waves. They also need to ascertain that these devices do not harm marine life or delicate coastal ecosystems. A breakthrough patented last year could revolutionize the field: Distributed Embedded Energy Converter Technologies (DEEC-Tec). This technology consists of a flexible fabric with numerous tiny energy converters (each a few centimeters in size), allowing the material to morph into various shapes to collect energy more efficiently.
As the fabric bends under the pressure of the waves, the positive and negative electrodes inside each converter come closer together, generating electricity. NREL is exploring several designs for this fabric, such as floating devices or structures that mimic the movements of a car dealership balloon. Elaine Buck, marine energy technology manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office, believes that the flexibility and increased surface area provided by these fabrics could greatly improve wave energy collection.
While the United States lags behind Europe in wave energy development, its first utility-scale, grid-connected wave energy test site, PacWave, is slated to launch in Newport, Oregon, by 2025. Operated by Oregon State University, this facility will allow wave energy developers to test various technologies and transmit the generated power to the local electrical grid. When fully operational, it could accommodate up to 20 wave energy devices simultaneously, generating a maximum of 20 megawatts of electricity—enough to power roughly 2,000 homes.
Although large-scale wave energy farms may be decades away, the DOE and researchers are working to improve the efficiency, reliability, and durability of WECs with the goal of achieving grid-scale power within the next 10 years. In the meantime, wave energy technologies will be employed on a smaller scale to power offshore industries such as seafood farms and ocean monitoring. They may also prove invaluable during natural disasters, supplying electricity during blackouts or powering water desalination facilities. As Buck observes, there is tremendous excitement surrounding the possibilities in the wave energy sector.
Collaborative efforts between governmental organizations, research institutions, and startups will be essential in advancing wave energy technologies. These partnerships will facilitate the development and optimization of WECs, allowing the industry to capitalize on the abundant renewable energy source that the ocean’s waves offer. As the sector matures, regulatory frameworks will need to be established to guide the responsible deployment and operation of wave energy farms while minimizing environmental impacts. Furthermore, investment in research, development, and infrastructure will be crucial to ensure that wave energy technologies are both cost-effective and competitive with other renewable energy sources.
Local communities and coastal regions can also play a significant role in the development and adoption of wave energy technologies. Community engagement and education will not only raise awareness but also foster support for the establishment of wave energy projects in nearby waters. In conclusion, harnessing the immense power of ocean waves presents an opportunity to diversify our renewable energy portfolio, enhance energy security, and promote sustainable development. As innovative technologies such as DEEC-Tec continue to emerge, the potential of wave energy to contribute substantially to our global energy mix grows ever more promising. By working together, researchers, policymakers, and industry stakeholders can turn this vision into a reality, enabling us to tap into the vast renewable energy resources hidden within the ocean’s depths.