Whatever happened to wave power?

Things are moving fast in the world of renewable energy, with wind and solar power continuing to make big advances. But amidst all the good news, there’s one technology that’s missing in action: wave power.

PelamisOcean waves should be a huge power resource.  The incoming wave power along Britain’s Atlantic coast has been estimated at 40kw per metre of coastline. It’s impossible to capture it all of course, but I thought we’d have a handful of local power plants up and running by now. I remember seeing the footage of the Pelamis ‘sea snake’ being tested in Scotland. Whatever happened to that?

Not much, as it happens. After 15 years of research, Pelamis went into administration last year. That’s a shame, since they were the first to generate power from the waves at scale, and they won’t ever see the rewards for that. The investors won’t get their millions back, but hopefully their research won’t go to waste.

The fundamental challenge with wave power is pretty simple, as Chris Goodall explains: “The forces are so enormous that energy collection structures have to be implausibly strong and heavy and construction costs are therefore excessive.” It’s easy enough to make something that can generate electricity from gentle swells, but everything has to be engineered to handle the worst possible weather. At the Orkney testing site, that could mean conditions like those in December last year – 144 mph winds and 12 metre wave heights. You’re going to need a lot of heavy steel, which unfortunately doesn’t take kindly to saltwater.

Is wave power a lost cause then? Well, the sea snakes may have washed up, but there are several other operators testing prototypes in Scotland, and there are other clusters of companies running trials in Australia and Oregon. A company called Aquamarine just announced some very positive results for their Oyster 800 device, but they did halve their workforce last year.

So far, the most reliable thing to come out of the Orkney testing site is photo opportunities for Alex Salmond. The real proof of wave power’s potential has to be the arrival of larger companies and commercial wave farms. On that front, the news is equally mixed.

wave power cetoOne piece of good news is that last month the world’s first grid-connected wave farm was switched on in Australia. Developed by Carnegie Wave Power, its answer to the engineering challenge is to operate underwater rather than on the surface. Buoys tethered to the sea floor capture the swell, and pump seawater to a hydroelectric station on the shore. It will provide electricity and desalinated fresh water to Australia’s largest naval base.

On the other hand, Lockheed Martin announced ‘the world’s largest wave energy project’ last year, also in Australia, only to quietly shelve it a couple of months later.

In short, the wave power industry hasn’t cracked it yet. It’s an emerging technology. Pessimists will say it hasn’t come anywhere in ten years. Optimists might echo Edison, who joked that he discovered 10,000 things that didn’t work before delivering a workable light bulb, and argue that it is on the cusp of commercial viability.

Navigating between those extremes, Dave Levitan points out a parallel with wind power. Thirty years ago the industry hadn’t settled on an optimal turbine design, and prototyping was still going on. Wave power is in a similar position, and we may yet see a breakthrough. Since wind power and solar have got the march on it however, it is likely to remain a marginal technology, one for island states and coastal communities.

11 Comments on “Whatever happened to wave power?”

  1. OmniRunner March 23, 2015 at 2:50 pm #

    I saw the “sea snake” on a science program. It looked really promising. As you say, the engineering challenges are enormous when you are dealing with the power of the ocean.
    We will get there eventually. I seem to see a new home w/ solar panels on it in my town every week.
    Someday, every harbor will have a tidal energy system.
    Andy

  2. Neil March 23, 2015 at 2:52 pm #

    Someone I knows husband works for Aquamarine, haven’t dared ask… The problem is the Scottish Government has lost interest in wave/tidal power.

  3. henry1941 March 23, 2015 at 8:49 pm #

    I wonder if the key to this is to combine wave generation and sea defences?

    • Jeremy Williams March 24, 2015 at 10:25 am #

      Interesting. It would presumably have an effect in reducing the incoming wave power on beaches. I imagine you could combine tidal power and sea defences too.

    • henry1941 March 24, 2015 at 1:17 pm #

      The aim of wave power it to convert the energy into a usable form by removing it from the waves. So it will reduce the potential for waves to cause damage.

  4. Anthony Smith March 24, 2015 at 2:01 pm #

    You’re familiar with the “Seamills” (“Searaser”) Ecotricity are working on? https://www.ecotricity.co.uk/our-green-energy/our-green-electricity/and-the-sea/seamills

    • Jeremy Williams March 24, 2015 at 2:50 pm #

      Yes, as an Ecotricity customer I’ve seen it in their newsletters. It’s a similar technology to the Carnegie buoys mentioned in the post, but hasn’t been trialled at sea yet, so I didn’t mention it specifically. The full prototype is due to be installed this year I believe.

      • Anthony Smith March 24, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

        Thanks, it will be exciting to see it in action!

    • henry1941 March 24, 2015 at 4:53 pm #

      Looks good but I used to live in Brighton. Large buoys with sturdy anchor chains were often swept ashore in stormy weather. There was even one washed ashore with markings on it which showed it had come from the Channel Islands.

      The force of the waves can be immense. There is also the issue of marine growths – barnacles and seaweed – which would hamper the operation of moving parts. And corrosion and photodegradation. It’s a hostile environment. It needs to be taken into account.

  5. Cosma Vasile October 5, 2016 at 4:14 pm #

    Did you know that Romania has a technical solution with the highest efficiency to capture wave power?.
    Patent 108893 entitled Dynamic Engine for Sea Wave Energy Catching. A pioneering invention. It is estimated that “dynamic engine” has the ability to catching wave energy at a rate of over 80% while the other technical solutions known worldwide, are not able to capture wave energy with a higher percentage of about 10-15%.
    Cosma Vasile Romania.
    E-mail cosma.vasile@yahoo.com

    Some information for patent “Dynamic Engine” can be found on:
    – Ocean energy: Wave energy | Climate TechWiki
    – “First Wave Energy Device Connected to Power Grid | Science”

    Link for patent “Dynamic Engine”
    http://bd.osim.ro/pdf/108000-/108800-/108893.pdf

  6. Jeremy Williams October 6, 2016 at 10:17 am #

    Interesting, thank you.

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