Cathing the Tide: tapping into wave power

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Almost every report on renewable energy mentions wave power along with solar or wind. This is why it is almost surprising to learn how little the sea surfs are actually used for energy generation; while the global wave power potential is estimated at 3 TW[1]—this is huge, given that wind source potential is typically given in GW, and 1 TWh/year of energy can supply about 93,850 homes[2]—, “no commercial-scale wave power operations now exist[3].” In February 2015, the news covered uniquely designed wave power generators activated off the coast of Western Australia[4], which is the world’s very first grid-connected wave power station.

Then, why does this clean energy source with great potential remain so untapped? Just like any other renewables, construction costs matter. But risks are higher considering the extreme condition at sea. Complex technology is needed to harness the awe-inspiring ocean power, from “writhing snake-like attenuators, bobbing buoys, or devices mounted discreetly on the ocean floor[5].” In addition, cost-effective solutions are needed to convert low frequency of incident waves (0.2 Hz) to electricity transmission levels (50-60 Hz). Against this backdrop, there is little incentive for companies to voluntarily make investments in this area. Only recently are big companies like RWE joining hands with renewables engineering firms to exploit tidal and wave power in UK coasts[6]. US defense giant Lockheed Martin also launched the world’s largest wave power project in Australia in 2014.

Policy support is essential in order to bloom these initiatives. In 1970’s, Europe saw wave energy proponents defeated by nuclear advocates in competition for grants[7]. Tapping into wave power requires a more targeted approach; for example, the UK has recently revised its renewable obligation (RO; European counterpart of RPS) to “provide additional incentives for investment in emerging, and thus generally more expensive, renewable technologies, such as wave, tidal, offshore wind and biomass generation[8]”. Such policy change would be of course very challenging, but let’s face it; wave power has too much potential to let it ebb away.

[1] Source: Andrews and Jelley, 2013, Energy Science

[2] Source: boem.gov

[3] Source: Dave Levitan, 4/28/14, Why Wave Power Has Lagged Far Behind as Energy Source, retrieved from

http://e360.yale.edu/feature/why_wave_power_has_lagged_far_behind_as_energy_source/2760/

[4] Source: http://www.sciencealert.com/world-s-first-grid-connected-wave-power-station-switched-on-in-australia

[5] Dave Levitan, 4/28/14, Why Wave Power Has Lagged Far Behind as Energy Source, retrieved from

[6] Source: http://www.marineturbines.com/3/news/article/44/marine_current_turbines_kicks_off_first_tidal_array_for_wales

[7] Source: http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/earth/oceanography/wave-energy3.htm

[8] Source: Allan et al., 2011, Levelised costs of Wave and Tidal energy in the UK: Cost competitiveness and the importance of “banded” Renewables Obligation Certificates

[9] Image source: Flickr.com

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