While wind was gusting and solar shone over the last three decades, wave and tidal power made only a small splash. Now they could be the new wave in renewables, as ocean energy projects are being floated globally.
If ocean energy systems were deployed worldwide, they could generate enough power to meet global electricity needs, according to the International Energy Agency. In 2013, there were about 100 pilot wave energy projects worldwide, experimenting with different methods and tools to capture and convert energy from the water. Now, marine power is gearing up to go commercial.
On Oct. 11, the UK government announced it would commit up to £557 million (about $773 million) in funding in 2019 for “less-established renewable electricity projects,” including wave energy. Marine Power Systems in Wales is eyeing that money. Last month, in what it called a “marine renewables milestone,” the company deployed a prototype of its new “wavesub” technology, a generator that goes deep below the water’s surface, helping it avoid being battered by rough seas.
In Australia, the company Carnegie Clean Energy recently won $12 million from the government for wave energy development, working on simultaneous power generation and water desalination. The company will also help develop a national wave energy institute with an added $2.85 million in grants to foster cooperation and hasten commercialization and global export of Australian wave energy.
In September, researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan announced that they harnessed wave energy with underwater turbines, making enough electricity to power a city. They are seeking commercial investors to further development, arguing that using just 1% of mainland Japan’s seashore can generate about 10 gigawatts of energy, equivalent to 10 nuclear power plants.
Wave power potential differs depending on the location of a nation, of course. In August, Plos One published an analysis of 35 years of wave data from three locations in Brazil. It concluded that “the Brazilian offshore” has low to medium potential compared with locations in the North Atlantic Ocean, like the US east coast and Spain. “However, the [Brazilian coasts] are similar, and even superior, to places like the Korean Peninsula and Italy,” the paper states. Brazil had its first success experimenting with wave energy in 2012.
“Everything has its day,” says Mark Allington, vice president of energy and climate in Europe for the global energy consultancy ICF. He told Quartz wave power is promising but notes that it takes much more than new tools to make an energy source popular enough for power grids. It takes political will, and waves have some way to go.
When Allington began working in sustainable energy as an engineer about 30 years ago, solar, wind and wave energy development were in their relative infancy. Interest in solar and wind picked up quickly, but waves were left behind. There are a few reasons for this. Practically speaking, waves are a kind of wind power—the action of the wind on the water—so it was natural to figure out how to harness wind first, turning it into electricity. Also, oceans corrode materials and it’s more difficult to haul and install equipment out on the water.
Plus—and this is very important Allington says—there hasn’t really been the political will to push wave power because it’s not yet as cost-effective as other renewable energy sources. “Even if it was technically possible to harness wave power now and devices were quickly perfected, the social, political, and commercial conditions need to be right for waves to be taken seriously,” he says.
Allington thinks this will happen faster in Europe than in the US. Europeans, with fewer local fuel sources, were forced to innovate on energy earlier, prompted by widespread energy shortages of the 1970s. As a result, they’re more willing to pay for imaginative projects.
Meanwhile, companies are increasingly learning to transform the knowledge and equipment used for offshore oil rigs and transfer it to ocean power. Industry will only do more of this as economic incentive to invest in renewables increases, the energy expert says.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in the US estimates that recoverable wave power could supply a third of the nation’s electricity needs. The ocean has enormous potential as a power source, the bureau reports, but wave energy has possible environmental consequences; setting up seaside power plants can cause ecological changes to sensitive shorelines, transforming the habits and habitats for sea creatures, and arguably harming ocean life directly with equipment and the constant interference of people. Power is also not the only commercial consideration—wave projects can’t interfere with shipping interests or mar the view for expensive beachfront properties.
Experts in the US are at odds over renewable energy in any case. A 2015 Stanford University study predicted an all-alternative power grid could be feasible by 2055, but this year that research was criticized as flawed, leading to what the Washington Post in June called “a bitter scientific debate” over the future of the American grid. That same month, the US Department of Energy announced up to $12 million in additional funds for innovative wave energy projects though president Donald Trump is no fan of clean energy generally. He stands alone against the world on the Paris climate change agreement, lifted a moratorium on leasing federal lands for coal mining, ordered a review of regulations restricting oil and gas exploration on federal lands, and of all rules burdening oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy production. Meanwhile, Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy, has ordered a study of the electrical grid with an eye to adding coal, gas, and nuclear capacity.
Wherever they may be, wave projects along coastlines draw opposition, as windmill farms did when Allington first began promoting them 30 years ago. He believes that by the time offshore wave power technology is perfected, societies will be ready to undertake serious marine projects, and views will no longer be an obstacle because the tools will be out of sight.
A UN Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance report found that global investment in renewables in 2016 was double the investment in fossil fuel generation. “The corresponding new capacity from renewables was equivalent to over half of all new power, and was the highest rate to date,” it states. Large hydroelectric projects added about 15% of net energy-generating capacity worldwide in 2016.
Still, hydroelectric projects, wave or tidal, face resistance. At the September Scottish Renewables Marine Conference, Scotland’s business innovation and energy minister, Paul Wheelhouse, noted that water projects can’t compete for government contracts because wind and solar power are already so advanced and relatively cheap to generate.
“I am confident, however…that tidal and indeed wave are making great progress in that cost curve,” Wheeelhouse told conference attendees, still smarting from news that Scottish tidal stream developer Atlantis Resources failed to secure a 2017 UK government contract to provide tidal power due to the high cost of the project. “We need to get to the point that we have the commitment to the technology that we can generate economies of scale by producing more devices and bringing manufacturing costs down, and that has a huge part to play in making the industry competitive.”
Allington agrees with this assessment. In his view, wind and solar power were able to advance and are now important power sources with the assistance of governments motivated by energy shortages. “There are enough smart people thinking about wave energy now, so if there’s the governmental will, we’ll have the right conditions,” he predicts. “We do have the resources to make it happen.”
Climate change has given us a powerful motivation to work out wave energy now. A group of 15,000 scientists from 185 countries on Nov. 13 signed what they called a “warning to humanity.” They say fossil fuel use rates aren’t declining and are causing ever-speedier global warming, which could cause Earth’s destruction. That makes waves an undeniably cool alternative.