Wave Power Project Approved
The U.S. government has just approved a new type of wave generation project. Ocean Power Technologies (OPT) has been given a 35-year license to operate a wave farm off the cost of Reedsport, Oregon, the first license to be issued for a wave power station in the U.S. My previous research on wave power focused on turbines. But, this project will utilize OPT’s patented PowerBuoy© wave generation system.
How do these buoys work? Basically, the buoy will be rooted to the ocean floor by a sturdy tower that contains a generator. The buoy mechanism will be located at the top of the tower and will rest upon the ocean surface. As waves move toward the coastline, the buoy will rise and fall with the water, and this up-and-down action will pump the generator housed within the tower, creating electricity. The electricity is then carried to shore through cables running along the ocean floor.
This video by OPT does an excellent job demonstrating the PowerBuoy© technology.
The Pros and Cons of Wave Power
As with wave power generated by underwater turbines, the PowerBuoy© system will provide consistent, pollution-free power that is efficient and renewable with low maintenance costs. Visual impact will be minimal because, even though the OPT PowerBuoy© sits on the water’s surface, the buoys will be located 2.5 miles from the shore. It has also been posited that wave power decreases the strength of waves crashing into the shoreline because it captures kinetic energy from waves several miles offshore.
Major concerns with wave power lie mostly in its potential to disrupt marine life and habitats and its potential to impede shipping channels, fishing operations, and recreation areas. However, these concerns cannot be confirmed until larger wave farms are actually constructed.
How Much Power Can We Capture From Waves?
What kind of power can we expect from this project? OPT estimates that the 10 buoys to be stationed in Reedsport, Oregon have the potential to power 1,000 homes. Once connected to the grid, I would assume that distribution costs would not differ (at least not significantly) from traditional sources of electricity. However, I am sure that upfront costs will factor largely into the building and expansion of wave farms, in addition to the wave activity of a particular location.
However, it does look like wave power has the potential to generate significant amounts of electricity. In the United Kingdom, it has been estimated that wave power has the potential to supply 11% of current electricity demand, in addition to creating 8,000 new jobs and £8 billion ($12.55 billion) in exports.
But wait. Current electricity demand? What happens when people shift to electric cars and away from vehicles powered by fossil fuel combustion? Demand for electricity will undoubtedly increase significantly, won’t it? Exxon Mobil actually addresses this point in its 2012 The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040 report. They project that worldwide electricity demand will be 80% higher in 2040 than 2010. But, the energy giant also predicts that electricity generation will become more efficient, reducing the number of primary energy units required to produce a unit of electricity from 3 to 2 by 2040. The effect of this increased energy efficiency should increase demand for the fuels that make electricity by only 45% by 2040. So, we can expect wave power to produce less than 11% of the U.K.’s electricity needs in 2040, but its contribution to the country’s energy matrix will still be significant.
All in all, I think this project sounds like an excellent experiment – although right now it is just that, an experiment. Before we can make large-scale investments in wave power, we will have to confirm its energy output and efficiency. We will also have to observe and assess its impacts on marine life, shipping activity, fishing, and recreation.
Of course, wave power can only be generated along the coast, so it can only be one part of a clean energy solution. But on the surface (coincidental pun, love those!), this form of wave power appears to hold a lot of promise. Wave power could be fed directly into the power grid, eliminating the need for an entirely new distribution infrastructure. Adopting wave power wouldn’t require consumer action; it could be implemented at the power plant level (making it easy to roll out for an entire region). Plus, it’s renewable, predictable, and consistent. I know only time will tell if this is a viable energy solution, but I’m definitely rooting for its success.