Wind and solar power are the heavy hitters of the global clean energy revolution, but the US Energy Department is still focusing an eyeball on ocean power and things just got a little more interesting. Despite the threat of steep budget cuts proposed by President Trump, DOE is forging ahead with a new round of $12 million in funding for ocean power projects, specifically aimed at accelerating the development of “game-changing,” low cost wave energy converters.
Why Ocean Power?
The US has been steadily pumping dollars into wave energy, tidal energy and other ocean power projects, but progress has been slow (Australia is among the countries that seem to be a step or two ahead).
Partly due to the complications (corrosion, much?) involved in situating mechanical devices in salty water, at the present time wave energy is not competitive with wind, solar, or for that matter inland hydropower.
However, the vast potential for sucking up energy from the ocean is certainly tempting. Here’s DOE enthusing over the possibilities:
The Department’s latest nationwide wave and tidal energy resource assessments identify up to 1,400 terawatt hours of potential generation per year. One terawatt-hour of electricity is enough to power 85,000 homes, and developing a small fraction of the available wave and tidal energy resource could allow for millions of American homes to be powered with this clean, reliable form of renewable energy.
DOE estimates that the Pacific Northwest could generate up to 70 kilowatts per meter of coastline all by itself, with 40 kilowatts being the minimum mark.
More to the point, costs are coming down. DOE anticipates that the northeast and northwest coasts of the US will be among the more feasible spots around the globe to harvest wind energy. The agency also cites analysts who foresee that niche applications could be quite competitive.
In that regard, it’s worth noting that cities — and high electricity demand — are concentrated along coastlines in the US and other countries.
The US took several significant steps toward jump-starting a domestic ocean power industry during the Obama Administration, including a $10 million funding opportunity and expansion of an existing wave energy test facility in Hawaii.
Tiny Wave Energy Developers Vault Into The Spotlight
The new $12 million funding pot is being split four ways. Two of the projects receiving grants also placed in the Wave Energy Prize winner’s circle.
The runner up was the University of California – Berkeley spinoff California Wave Power Technologies. Its prize winning device achieved a three-fold jump in the benchmark of energy capture per unit structural cost. The new round of funding will enable the startup to develop parameters for building a scaled up version.
The grand prize went to a kind of floating Frisbee called Power Take Off. Developed by Oregon-based AquaHarmonics, Power Take Off clocked in with a five-fold rampup in energy capture per unit structural cost. As with the runner-up, the funds will go to developing a full scale version that meets the central goal of reducing costs.
Group Hug For US Taxpayers!
Since AquaHarmonics won the big prize, let’s zero in on them. The two-man team of Alex Hagmuller and Max Ginsberg formed at Oregon State University and began developing the converter about five years ago.
With full time jobs to attend to, the two literally tinkered in a garage in their spare time (usually at night) to get their device off the ground. It could have stayed in the garage for another five years or more, but they credit the Wave Energy Prize for getting them to the next stage with structure, focus, and the chance to work with “extremely helpful, encouraging, and inspirational people.”
As for the technology, Aquaharmonics approached the problem by looking at wind turbines. With some notable exceptions, turbine blades all look pretty similar because the technology is mature and generations of innovators have figured out the optimal shape.
In the case of wave power, innovators are still trying to figure out the optimal approach, and Aquaharmonics is confident they have nailed it:
Our device Power Take Off is unique in that it uses relatively simple and well known power technologies to convert wave motion to electrical power in very few steps, with no limit in operational stroke, meaning it can make full use of any given wave height with no “end stop” conditions.
Aquaharmonics resolves the corrosion problem by enclosing the device in a sealed hull. That adds weight and cost, but the durability gain makes it work:
The device hull is a simple, robust shape designed to handle the worst weather conditions it may see in operation.This design strategy results in a wave energy converter that is simple, light weight, robust and low in capital cost.
If all goes well, the device will avoid a major pitfall that is particularly acute in the wave power field. Here’s an explainer from DOE:
…Private investors typically seek short payback periods for their investments, and this has placed a huge burden on past wave energy development.
This has caused early developers to go from a partial scale model to full scale too quickly, and the resulting cost overruns in deployment and maintenance as well as less than anticipated power production has made investors of wave energy a bit leery.
The availability of public dollars means that innovators can take their time and get things right in the R&D stage.
But Wait, There’s More
Rounding out the $12 million funding pot are two projects that did not compete in the Wave Energy Prize, but they could have an outsized impact on the ocean power field.
California’s ReVision Consulting gets some dollars to develop more accurate systems to predict ocean waves and communicate data to wave energy converters, aimed at promoting optimal performance.
Oregon’s Portland State University will get an assist to develop a generator with magnetic gears, sealed in an airtight case. The new gearbox is aimed at these critical improvements:
Increasing the gear ratio through the multistage design reduces the generator size, which in turn reduces the structural support required, thereby lowering costs. The magnetic gearbox, which creates speed change without physical contact, minimizes operations and maintenance costs and provides protection from overloading during extreme events.
Go for it!
Unless the Trump Administration throws a monkey wrench into the deal, the US ocean power industry will also benefit from a new $40 million wave energy test facility slated for the coast of Oregon. The new plans were announced last December so we’ll see about that.
One thing that could help keep progress on ocean power humming along is the interest of the US Navy, which has also pumped research dollars of its own into the wave energy effort and other ocean power projects.
Meanwhile, all is not rosy over at the Department of Energy. The agency has been pumping out all the good news about renewables nonstop, to the point where Energy Secretary Rick Perry seems to be practically thumbing his nose at President Trump. However, last week word leaked out that he is closing — or has already closed — an 11-person office that works on preparing for the annual Clean Energy Ministerial and other international renewable energy projects.
This could be Perry toeing the line on Trump’s Paris pullout with a sacrificial lamb, or it could be a harbinger of more dominoes to fall.
Stay tuned for more on that.
*The Wave Energy Prize Challenge is just one part of a much larger group of ocean energy programs funded by the US Department of Energy.
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Image: via AquaHarmonics.
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