At first glance, waves have the makings of an ideal renewable energy source. They are predictable, consistent and extremely powerful. Their energy potential is astonishing – researchers estimate that the waves off the coast of the United States could produce up to 2.64 trillion kilowatt-hours per year, or 64% of the country’s total electricity production in 2019.
But capturing the immense power radiating through the surfaces of our oceans is no easy task – wave energy technology is difficult to design, start-up costs are high, and open water testing is a regulatory nightmare. . This is why the trajectory of wave energy has been a matter of stop and start plagued by false start for decades. But things may finally be starting to change for the industry: the federal government recently approved the first large scale wave energy test site connected to the public grid in the United States.
The project led by Oregon State University, PacWave South, is a 2 square mile patch of ocean 7 miles off the rugged Oregon coast where developers and businesses can perform large-scale testing of their wave energy technologies. It will cost $ 80 million and is expected to be operational by 2023. The design includes four test ‘berths’, where wave power devices will be moored to the seabed and connected to buried cables carrying electricity. to a shore installation. In total, the PacWave Sud facility will be able to test up to 20 wave energy devices at a time.
While wave energy technology is still in the research and development phase, experts see it as a promising newcomer to the renewable energy landscape. In 2019, the global wave energy market was valued at $ 43.8 million, and it is expected at more than triple by 2027.
“Before you get certified to develop a farm on a commercial scale, you have to actually demonstrate success on a large scale,” said Jesse Roberts, environmental analysis manager in the Water Power Technologies department at Sandia National Laboratories. “Now that this test facility is there, there is actually a way to do it in the United States.”
There is only one comparable site at PacWave worldwide, in the Orkney Islands in Scotland, according to Project Oregon chief scientist Burke Hales. While there is a wave energy test site in hawaii, it is only configured for specific types of technology. The Oregon site, on the other hand, can support almost any type of system. Although many early wave energy projects will depend on federal grants, Hales said, the hope is that the test facility will also allow companies to attract venture capitalists and angel investors by proving feasibility. technological devices.
“Even someone like Bill Gates is not going to pay someone millions of dollars to do tests that he thinks will fail,” Hales said. “The feasibility is quite important.”
Bill Staby, who founded Boston-based wave energy company Resolute Marine Energy in 2007, knows from experience that a major hurdle for companies like his is getting approval to test in a real ocean environment. So far, most of Resolute Marine Energy’s testing has taken place in wave tanks and labs, but these scenarios cannot demonstrate the device’s ability to withstand harsh ocean conditions. It might seem straightforward enough to put a device in the empty ocean, Staby said, but “there are a lot of stakeholders, federal and state regulators who decide what goes where and when.”
Wave energy is promising on its own, but it is a game-changer when viewed as part of a diverse portfolio of renewable energies, said Kelley Ruehl, who works in the Water Power Technologies department at Sandia National Laboratories. When the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, the waves can be there to fill in the gaps. “What a diversified energy portfolio does is it makes the system more resilient,” Ruehl said.