Wave energy is an infinite, reliable source of zero emission electricity, if only somebody could figure out how to harvest it from the ocean without stumbling over cost, corrosion, biofouling, wildlife impacts, and other hurdles. The latest outfit to give it a try is the startup CalWave Power Technologies, which has just concluded a successful 10-month pilot test in California.
The Rocky Road To Wave Energy
Wave energy converters are simple, at least in principle. They sit in the ocean, bouncing up and down, and transferring the natural kinetic energy of waves to a human-made device outfitted with an onboard generator and a cable hookup to shore.
In practice, though, wave energy conversion is a tricky task. Among other obstacles is the challenge of floating or submerging a mechanical device in saltwater for extended periods of time.
Nevertheless, the prize is a tantalizing one.
“In the United States, waves carry the equivalent of about 80% of the country’s energy needs,” explains the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
NREL cautions that the 80% is a technical estimate, not a practical one. However, the lab envisions a strong role for wave energy in the nation’s transition to clean power.
“Waves are more predictable and reliable than solar or wind energy, and they could power hard-to-reach locations, like coastal communities and remote islands, which currently depend on expensive, carbon-intensive diesel imports,” NREL enthuses. “Wave energy devices could also power offshore fishing, marine research, or military operations that need to reach deeper waters.”
The Long Road To Wave Energy
If you caught those things about coastal communities and military operations, that explains why the US Navy and Marine Corps have been front and center in the wave energy race. CleanTechnica caught wind of the activity back in 2010, when the the first ever grid-connected ocean power device in the US was hooked up at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, at Kaneohe Bay in Oahu.
The base has served as a test site for various wave energy devices since then, but here we are 12 years later and none have gotten off the ground and into commercial operation, at least not here in the US.
That’s a stark contrast with the rampaging pace of activity in the US solar and wind energy industries, which just goes to show the enormous challenges racked up against wave energy.
Still, the table has been set for success. In the early 2000s, Oregon State University established another test site off the Port of Newport in Oregon. In 2018 the Energy Department and OSU began finalizing plans for a more elaborate sister site called PacWave South, located in deeper waters farther off the Oregon coast.
Construction began on PacWave South last year. Grid connection is expected next year and the facility will be fully operational in 2024.
Once fully operational, PacWave South is expected to kick the US wave energy industry into high gear. It is set up for rapid-fire R&D. With four berths in the open ocean, it can accommodate up to 20 wave energy converters at a time.
The site is also pre-permitted for a wide range of devices, which will save considerable time and money for private sector partners.
CalWave Heads For The Big Leagues
In contrast to the protective bay of the Hawaii site, PacWave South exposes its test subjects to the full power of optimal, open-ocean conditions. That’s where CalWave is heading with its new wave energy converter, trademarked under the name x1.
Last week the company concluded a successful 10-month test run of its x1 at a site off the coast of San Diego. The test project was funded by an Energy Department grant awarded to CalWave on account of its stellar performance as runner-up in the agency’s Wave Energy Prize challenge program.
The San Diego run was aimed at prepping CalWave’s trademarked xWave technology for open-ocean testing and proof of commercial viability. Apparently it came through with flying colors because the next stop is PacWave South.
CalWave noted that its wave energy device was up and running more than 99% of its deployment and required exactly zero interventions, thanks mainly to an onboard autonomous controller system. The system also weathered two storms that were the largest expected under a 10-year scenario for a utility scale system.
“Based on high reliability of the system and zero interventions during operations, the deployment was extended from six months to 10 months, and concluded as required by CalWave’s U.S. DOE contract,” the company added. “The results of this pilot are critical for the advancement of CalWave’s x100™ and x800™ utility-scale classes of the xWave™”
Next Steps For Ocean Power
CalWave is ready for action even before the finishing touches are due on PacWave South. The company has an Energy Department award of $7.5 million in hand to fine-tune its xWave technology for microgrids and other local uses. Under the award, CalWave will build a 100 kilowatt version for a two-year deployment at PacWave.
Last spring the company also formed a partnership with the accelerator LaunchAlaska. Alaska is a particularly tantalizing target. NREL estimates that the state’s wave energy potential here far outweighs it electricity usage.
Meanwhile, the wave energy industry overall is still chipping away at the cost obstacle. One solution is beginning to emerge in the form of offshore wind farms that piggyback with wave energy harvesting devices. The clean power two-for-one could help save on deployment costs, coastal connections, and maintenance costs, freeing up more space for spending on the device itself.
Last week, CalWave CEO and Co-Founder Marcus Lehmann dropped a hint that his company is heading in that direction. “Our pilot of the x1™ provided us with critical results necessary to advance on the path towards commercialization,” he said last week. “As offshore wind development is growing rapidly in the US and globally, we recognize the significant opportunities for wind and wave farm co-location.
Of course, no mention of offshore wind power is complete without a mention of the white hot green hydrogen trend. Offshore wind developers are beginning to explore the potential for constructing electrolyzer systems on wind turbines or standalone platforms in wind farms. Shoehorning wave energy converters into the wind-plus-hydrogen picture could be a next step, so stay tuned for more on that.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo (cropped): Wave energy converter courtesy of CalWave.
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