The federal approval of a new testing site off the coast of Oregon might give the technology a much-needed boost after decades of failed attempts.
On the surface, waves appear to be an excellent renewable energy source. They’re consistent, predictable, and extremely strong. Researchers believe that waves off the shores of the United States might create up to 2.64 trillion kilowatt-hours per year, which is comparable to 64 percent of the country’s entire power output in 2019.
Wave energy technology is difficult to develop, launch costs are exorbitant, and testing in open ocean waters is a regulatory headache, so collecting the tremendous power spreading over our oceans’ surfaces is no simple job. That’s why, for decades, wave energy has been a stop-and-go affair plagued by false starts. The federal government just approved the first full-scale, utility-grid-connected wave energy test site in the United States, which might signal a turning point for the sector.
PacWave South, a project coordinated by Oregon State University, is a 2-square-mile piece of ocean 7 miles off the rocky Oregon coast where wave energy researchers and firms may conduct large-scale testing of their products. It will cost $80 million to build and is expected to be operational by 2023. Four testing “berths” are included in the plan, where wave energy devices will be anchored to the seafloor and connected to subterranean cables transporting electricity to an onshore facility. The PacWave South facility will have the capacity to test up to 20 wave energy devices at the same time.
While wave energy technology is still in its early stages of development, experts believe it has the potential to be a promising newcomer to the renewable energy scene. The worldwide wave energy industry was worth $43.8 million in 2019, and it is predicted to quadruple by 2027. “You have to demonstrate performance at full size before you obtain certification to create a commercial-scale farm,” said Jesse Roberts, an environmental analysis lead at Sandia National Laboratories’ Water Power Technologies section. “Now that this test facility is up and running, there’s really a means to do it in the United States.”
According to Burke Hales, the Oregon project’s principal scientist, there is only one comparable site in the world to PacWave, which is located in Scotland’s Orkney Islands. While Hawaii does have a wave energy test facility, it is exclusively built up for certain sorts of technologies. Meanwhile, the Oregon location can accommodate practically any system. Although many early wave energy initiatives will rely on federal funding, Hales hopes that the testing center will help entrepreneurs recruit venture capitalists and angel investors by demonstrating the technological viability of their products.
“Even Bill Gates isn’t going to pay someone millions of dollars to do tests that they believe will fail,” Hales added. “It’s critical to consider feasibility.”
Bill Staby, who launched the Boston-based wave energy business Resolute Marine Energy in 2007, knows that acquiring authorization to test in a real-world ocean environment is a major hurdle for enterprises like his. Resolute Marine Energy has done a lot of testing in wave tanks and labs so far, but such settings can’t demonstrate the device’s capacity to withstand strong seas. Installing a gadget in an empty ocean may appear straightforward, but “there are a tremendous number of stakeholders, federal and state officials that decide what goes in where and when,” according to Staby.
Wave energy is promising on its own, but when combined with other renewable energy sources, it may be game-changing, according to Kelley Ruehl of Sandia National Laboratories’ Water Power Technologies section. Waves may fill in the gaps when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. “What a varied energy portfolio does is it provides the system more resiliency,” Ruehl explained.
Wave energy has the advantage of being more easily adaptable to smaller towns, according to Dan Kammen, professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley. Wave energy devices, he added, have the potential to be put on a megawatt size and utilized to power small, remote coastal villages, whereas wind projects normally produce electricity on a gigawatt scale.
“You’re not going to spoil the viewscape, you’re not going to harm lobster fishing if you undertake a tidal or wave project in Maine,” Kammen added. “There are great prospects for these smaller units to be integrated into communities.”
According to Tim Ramsey, marine energy program manager at the federal Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, small-scale wave power projects will likely come first, much as they did with solar. “You saw a lot of early uses of extremely small solar panels, such solar-powered watches, calculators, games, and lights,” he remarked. “That’s where wave and marine energy is right now—trying to apply what we’ve learned from some of the smaller possibilities to the bigger fiscal market.”