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After years of wipeouts, is the surf up for wave power?

Image Credit: Wix
  • Wave energy conversion may be the next zero-emission energy technology to capture the attention of the world.

  • Harvesting the energy from waves off the coast of the U.S. could theoretically meet roughly 60% of the nation's energy needs.

  • Past attempts to harvest ocean energy have been wiped out thanks to the harsh conditions in the ocean.

  • New startup companies like CalWave Power Technologies and Eco Wave Power think they have ways to withstand the rough waters.

  • Last September, the company completed the first pilot of its technology, a 10-month deployment in waters off the coast of San Diego.

Last September a team of scientists and entrepreneurs pulled a salt-encrusted and ocean-scarred blue cube out of the waters off the coast of San Diego.

It was the first successful test of a new technology by the startup CalWave Power Technologies and could represent a great leap forward for the future of renewable energy.

CalWave's little blue energy harvester that could, had spent the past ten months out at sea -- being autonomously monitored and managed to avoid rough weather and generate power that could be fed back to a utility onshore.

The company is just one of a number of businesses racing to commercialize technology that captures energy generated from the oceans -- enough power to provide as much as 64% of the total electricity consumed in the U.S. in 2021.

"This is terawatts of energy," said CalWave co-founder and CEO, Marcus Lehmann. "It can produce 40% of primary resource demand."

CalWave CEO Marcus Lehmann stands in front of the company's prototype wave energy harvester after it had spent 10 months operating off the coast of San Diego. Image Credit: CalWave
CalWave CEO Marcus Lehmann stands in front of the company's prototype wave energy harvester after it had spent 10 months operating off the coast of San Diego. Image Credit: CalWave

For years, companies have tried (and largely failed) to create ways to harness the power of oceans that can also withstand the incredibly harsh conditions of the seven seas.

These energy harvesting technologies have to withstand the salty and corrosive ocean waters, adequately protect existing marine life, and deal with increasingly violent storms that sweep over 71 percent of the Earth's surface.

So far, those conditions have wiped out the potential of tidal and wave power.

In Europe, where a concerted push to develop ocean power has been underway since 2010, only 13 megawatts of energy-generating projects are in the water out of a planned 43 megawatts launched in the last 13 years.

Despite those challenges, the siren's song of generating electricity from the motion of the ocean continues to excite engineers.

Wave power projects can have a much smaller footprint than the development of massive offshore wind farms, which can blunt criticisms from communities that object to big power projects outside their seaside homes.

CalWave estimates that its projects would take up 5 percent of the footprint of an offshore wind farm and the technology uses only 17 percent of the steel required to build an offshore wind farm.

"Wave energy could be the lowest source of clean energy from a life cycle emissions standpoint," says Lehmann.

CalWave's offshore wave energy harvester floating off the coast of San Diego
CalWave's offshore wave energy harvester floating off the coast of San Diego Image Credit: CalWave

Unlike other wave energy harvesters that float on the surface of the ocean, CalWave's big blue boxes are submerged and anchored to the sea floor.

The company's xWave then harvests the energy of waves passing over it -- with its unique design able to operate at multiple degrees of freedom and potentially capture more energy from the ocean.

“Operating submerged allows the system to autonomously shut down during storms,” Lehmann told the publication Engineering. “Using the water column to our advantage, we can avoid breaking waves, slamming loads, storm surges, and also really large return waves.”

In the same way that wind turbines use pitch and yaw to manage the amount of power they're collecting from wind, CalWave's turbines have similar mechanics to make sure their devices aren't overpowered by storm surges or mega-waves.

Anchored by cables to the ocean floor, CalWave's energy harvesters can largely avoid damages from hurricane force winds and other stresses that can degrade other wave energy devices.

No matter the technology, utilities and governments seem to want it.

That's why about 120 miles north of San Diego another business, Eco Wave Power, began installing its own wave energy conversion technology on a dock near Los Angeles.

The company is using a site set aside for it by AltaSea -- a nonprofit dedicated to exploring the ways the world's oceans can be used sustainably to provide energy and food while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Eco Wave Power's energy harvesting systems. Image Credit: Eco Wave Power
Eco Wave Power's energy harvesting systems. Image Credit: Eco Wave Power

Eco Wave Power's founder, Inna Braverman, believes that the ability to set up the company's wave harvesters closer to shore and on existing docks and other structures should reduce the cost and time it takes to build these systems.

Costs offshore can be tremendously expensive and other wave power projects have run aground because of overruns and an inability to adequately service offshore equipment, some experts noted.

“Let's say you wanted to replace a bolt on land; it costs a dollar,” Kelley Ruehl, ocean engineering expert from Sandia National Laboratories, told the publication Civil Engineering Source. “You want to do it above the surface of the water offshore, you're talking $10. You want to do it underwater, $100... Ask anyone who's spent extended periods of time on a boat or in the water, we've got a lot of energy there. You got storms. It's a challenging environment to work in.”

Buoyed by the success of its own test in San Diego, CalWave Power is working on nabbing its first potential commercial customers. But the initial installations are coming from an unlikely source.

Back in March, CalWave signed a memorandum of understanding with the energy services company Baker Hughes, one of the largest companies providing engineering services for the oil and gas industry.

The agreement with Baker Hughes would see CalWave bring its energy harvesters to offshore drilling locations to reduce operational emissions for rigs.

It's not ideal, but reducing emissions is reducing emissions. Plus, CalWave's co-founder sees the project as a way to gain a foothold into what could be an enormously lucrative renewable blue economy.

Lehmann envisions an energy ecosystem where CalWave's technology powers offshore carbon capture systems to reduce greenhouse gases and hydrogen production -- a renewable fuel that can be produced by splitting water using electricity produced from solar, wind -- or wave -- power.

Working in concert, these energy sources have the potential to provide more energy than the world currently consumes -- and at a fraction of the potential resource use of current non-renewable energy systems.

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