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Is Wave Energy in Our Future?

March 3, 2015

Having had some experience with the ocean, wave energy has always seemed to me to be on the fringe of reality. Especially devices mounted on the surface.

The ocean has the power to destroy anything made by man.

One ship I was on hit a rogue wave, and pounded heavily. While damage was not immediately apparent, it was discovered when the ship went into dry dock.

The wave had buckled the 3/4-inch steel plates on the ship’s bottom inward, by about 4 inches between several frames for much of the width of the ship.

Some may remember pictures of the cruiser Pittsburgh, where 100 feet of its bow section had been shorn from the ship by waves.

These forces will inevitably destroy devices on the surface trying to capture the motions of waves to produce electricity.

There have been several attempts to manufacture devices of this sort. Most have failed.

Here’s a list of a few companies that have had problems with wave development.

  • Voith Hydro decided to shutter its Wavegen operations in Scotland in 2013
  • Irish wave energy converter maker Wavebob shut down
  • Oceanlinx, a wave energy developer, went into liquidation in 2014
  • Ocean Power Technologies, who make PowerBuoys, canceled an Australian project
  • Aquamarine announced plans to lay off a “significant” number of staff

There have been two successful tidal wave projects: One, in France in 1966, the second, in South Korea in 2011. These are rated 240 MW and 254 MW respectively.

Bulb hydro turbines were used in these installations, and have also been proposed for use in some other tidal installations as depicted in this artist rendering, courtesy Swansea Bay tidal lagoon.

Artist rendering of Bulb turbine, courtesy Swansea Bay tidal lagoon

Artist rendering of Bulb turbine, courtesy Swansea Bay tidal lagoon

But the wave sector is having serious problems.

Of 40 projects announced between 2006 and 2013, they are all still in the demonstration phase.

It would appear as though a few tidal projects have some reasonable chance of becoming operational, though the cost of electricity produced by these installations is expected to be very high.

Andritz Hydro has an order for three 1.5-MW tidal current turbines for a planned tidal array at Pentland Firth in Scotland. These units have the shape of wind turbines, and being located beneath the surface, may not be subject to the extreme destructive forces of the ocean.

Wave Turbine of the Configuration Proposed for Tidal Installations

Wave Turbine of the Configuration Proposed for Tidal Installations

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) noted, “Levelized costs of ocean energy technologies are currently substantially higher than those of other renewable energy technologies.”

There is no question that the ocean has tremendous power and virtually unlimited energy, but trying to capture that energy to generate electricity is unlikely to be accomplished economically on a wide scale with any existing technology.

There are few environments on earth that are as harsh as that found in the ocean.

The allure of wave energy is understandable, but the reality is that we won’t be seeing widespread generation of electricity from the motion of waves or tides.

* * * * * *

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2015 9:14 pm

    Nice work as usual, Donn.

    So, is this just a bunch of hot air?

    http://www.1millionwomen.com.au/2015/02/18/world-first-wave-energy-project-switched-on-in-perth/

  2. March 4, 2015 10:27 am

    Interesting concept. For anyone else reading this comment here is a description of the installation in Perth.
    This could be a form of pumped storage, where the wave motion is used to drive pumps that moves water from a low level, at the ocean floor, to a higher level, the pumped storage area or the inlet to the downcomer tubes to the hydro generators.
    Or, as described in the link, the pumps pump high pressure water to the land where the high pressure water drives generators.
    It’s not clear whether the buoys generate electricity to drive the pumps, or whether it is the vertical motion connected mechanically that drives the pumps.
    However, the literature indicates that these buoys can generate electricity within the buoy for transmission by cable to a land substation.
    There is no cost information available so it’s not possible to calculate whether this idea is potentially cost competitive.
    They have spent $100 million thus far, for developing their concept.
    They plan on producing a 3 MW unit in the next year or two. A 3 MW unit would be the same as two 1.5 MW wind turbines, but should have a much higher capacity factor than wind turbines because the units could operate during night and day.
    One item I find intriguing is that the units are to use the wave motion to power the units, which means they can’t be tethered too far beneath the surface, yet they are deemed to be impervious to the destructive power of the ocean.
    I know that submersible equipment used in the oil industry can be positioned a 100 or 200 feet below the surface and be safe from storms, but will these units be safe when they are closer to the surface to obtain the wave action?
    For the reasons outlined in my article, it’s very doubtful that this concept will be economically competitive. Only time will tell.
    Thanks for the information.

    • March 14, 2015 9:52 am

      Thanks, Donn. You touched on the quintessential bottom line: What does it all cost and will it ever be competitive (though it seems you and I depart because I assign dollar value to spared pollution expense and you don’t)?

      In fact what I look for, for every new “green energy” gig, is the dollar-per-watt factor.

      Example: If I can build a 10KW Solar PV array for $10,000, that’s $1/watt. If it makes/saves me $1000/year, that’s a 10-year payback cycle (roughly speaking).

      The Rule of 10. 10,000 watts of power-generating capacity for $10,000 (hence, $1/watt), packing a 10-year payback cycle.

      I want to get green power parlance to a mass-intelligible level, like mpg for cars, or how much per pound for bacon, and so I urge authors of green power articles to speak of alt-energy innovations using that common, $1/watt baseline. Sadly, it’s hardly ever even a concept with them. I don’t see it here, in this wave-gen article:

      http://magazine.good.is/articles/australia-ceto-water-power-wave-generator?upw

      Nor do we hardly ever see actual investment costs revealed in the press. Is this CETO tech, for example, a $1/watt cost item? $6/watt? $60/watt?

      Another thing I look for, as do you, Donn: Whether private or taxpayer dollars went into the prototype and downwind iterations, and how much.

      I wish Wiki and other sites would make it their policy to insist on that quintessential data when describing (touting?) these things. But they don’t:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CETO

      And yes, if public money’s behind it, then that’s a fair indication that private investors checked it out and decided it’s not worth investing in. They don’t want to lose their money on it.

      Gov’t spendocrats, in contrast, are prone to be less prudent — because they’re only risking Other People’s Money on it. Watch closely, by the way, with future “home energy storage” product announcements. If you see cost-feasible electricity storage announced anywhere in the next 3 years, look first for the $1/watt baseline, and second for how much public-dollar investment backs it.

      • March 14, 2015 10:19 am

        Your approach to cost analysis is right on target, i.e., a reasonable payback for each dollar invested. Whether the pay back should be quicker is irrelevant, it’s the concept that’s important.
        I don’t remember seeing it expressed exactly this way before.
        As to why I don’t include pollutants in the calculation?
        It seems to be impossible to determine the true cost of pollutants. One group says it’s X, while another says it’s 100 times X.
        While pollutants are an important issue, their costs, while real, are not well defined.
        This is the problem with externalities. If pollutants are included, why not include the cost of damage to the environment from mining, or drilling? And what is meant by damage? Are methane emissions from drilling damage?
        While not perfect, I try to confine my economic analysis to established accounting rules.
        At least these analyses, like your suggestion, are well defined and can be agreed upon.
        Many thanks for your comments. They are always helpful and thought provoking.

  3. Catcracking permalink
    March 4, 2015 9:52 pm

    Thanks for the informative article, well done. I was always skeptical about wave energy, also knowing a little about the destructive energy in the Ocean.
    I like your fringe comment. If it’s on the fringe it is probably heavily subsidized with taxpayer $$$.

    • March 5, 2015 9:14 am

      Thanks.
      Yes, wave energy is being heavily subsidized.

  4. March 14, 2015 1:40 pm

    Donn, nice “cost-dodge” but I’m not letting you off that hook. Not everything in life can be bean-counted, and that doesn’t stop people from making decisions. Your wife or squeeze decides to drop eighty bucks for a bottle of “smelly water” (perfume) that costs $3 to manufacture. You pay thousands more for the “premium” or “deluxe” model of something, even though your rational side knows you’re just paying for cachet (hype, the “conspicuous consumption,” gotta be cooler, slicker, dandier than the next guy factor).

    In making what economists call “irrational” purchases (paying for the sizzle, instead of the steak), “satisfaction” upstages hard-edged, cost-benefit-analysis. For irrational (fashion clothing, etc.) products the collective choice of mass consumption sets the price: That perfume costs $80, not $3, because so many others have been willing to pay that price and thus establish its true market, not COST, value.

    Similarly, government makes decisions all the time, and even puts people in prison, based on choices that can’t be quantified. My favorite: Obscenity prosecutions, based on the vaguest of decisions about what’s good and what’s bad for the masses. You know, where the pornographer doesn’t know he’s crossed the line until a jury declares that yes, he violated “community standards” — a spongily arbitrary concept at best.

    In fact, the Supreme Court, when it upheld my own state’s obscenity statute, was confronted with the fact that there was no evidence ANYWHERE that viewing porn harms society. No clinical studies, let alone any quantifications like X number of hours of porn exposure produces Y number of bad results. And what few studies that had been done said there was NO causation.

    Nevertheless the court held that the Georgia Legislature was free to apply its collective notion of what’s needed for “an ordered society” to pass its obscenity statute, and too bad when a jury packed with Church Ladies convicts a man after the fact.

    So yeah, it’d be nice to strict-cost-account everything before drawing lines and formulating government policy and things like pollution and car-safety regs (seat belts have twice saved my life, and no such number-crunching went into that reg’s promulgation). But often it’s just not feasible to do so.

    That, however, gives no license to just walk away from brown power (coal, oil-burning, nuke-powered plants) that crap into the fish tank in which we all swim. Especially when those interests say hey, we’re so much cheaper than green power, so buy our product, not theirs, and certainly don’t publicly subsidize them.

    You know why, Donn. You and I have to breathe their crap and live with any earth-raping that they do (strip mining, polluted rivers, etc.).

    So why should we let them ignore their crap factor in making our decisions about their value to us, and thus how much we should pay for their product when cost-comparing it to green products? Why should our government ignore that crap in deciding whether to price-manipulate their products via taxes and/or regs?

    By your logic, polluters can spew all they want merely because their effluents can’t be accurately dollar-valued. And, since we have 100+ years of coal left to mine, we can keep ignoring the crap cost and just go another century or so of burning coal for our power (since it’s the cheapest source), while letting green power alternatives die a “rightful” free-market death.

    Do you really mean that?

    Before you answer, remember that you’ll undoubtedly pay more, when you move to a new city or town, to live AWAY from its smokestack industrial section. And that “clean environment premium” will be reflected in the higher, “green-zone” home price you’ll pay. In so doing, you actually will dollar-value pollution, and it will be reflected in your home-buying choice.

    But you won’t be precise with that dollar-valuation. Instead, you’ll look on the Zillow map, notice that the “green sector” costs more, and then gladly pay more WITHOUT pausing to precisely quantify the net cost spread.

    Why? Because you won’t care. There’s just no way you’ll live next to the cement factory, so you’ll confine your house-hunting to the “better” (greener) `hood. And yeah, it will cost you more but you’ll pay it. You may even tune out trying to figure how MUCH more because hey, paying more “hurts” the wallet and no one likes to retain “hurt” memories for very long.

    That inescapable degree of cost-sponginess, Donn, is what must necessarily exist when we urge our government to deal with pollution through regs if not also brown-power taxes.

    That’s why I say that, as hard as it is, we simply must try to dollar-quantify pollution costs, or at least do the best we can, just as “you” just did in the above hypothetical.

    So work with me here. Again, I want enviro-reportage to advance common-parlance terms ($1/watt, mpg, etc.) so that the masses can better understand these intractable problems and thus urge our leaders to make more prudent decisions. I also want smart guys like you to help us boil all this stuff down and help us decide that yes, “X” green tech is worth investing in, but not “Y.”

    And sure, at least explore assigning some value to the “crap” factor and do what “you” just did in the housing choice decision above — pay something more because, obviously, it was worth it to you not to have to breath cement dust.

    Bottom Line? We need best-guess, dollar-cost-factoring to support reasonable debate here. So help us, don’t duck behind “generally accepted accounting principles” (that’s too close to the GOP’s “I’m not a scientist, so I’m not even going to think about climate change” rap).

    We agree on this much: The problem with pollution and green-power reporting is that it’s too jargon-filled and esoteric, thus anaesthetizing the masses. We need to make it more accessible. “How much will it cost me?” is the first thing Joe Six Pack asks when presented with something new (product, gov’t reg, etc.).

    Help answer that question, OK?

    • March 14, 2015 3:08 pm

      I think the word in your comment was irrational. That is why I prefer to first calculate the actual cost using accepted accounting principles, otherwise all our decisions become irrational, i.e., based on some groups opinion.
      I like perfume $90 perfume X better than $91 perfume Y, because it doesn’t irritate my sinuses. Well, Y may irritate my sinuses but not yours, so should we forbid the sale of perfume Y?
      That doesn’t mean to totally overlook any serious consequences, and that is what needs to be debated.
      What’s serious and what isn’t. I remember the snail darter debate. For me, snail darters weren’t as important as the benefits to be derived from the dam or adjustments thereto.
      After calculating the actual cost we can debate the seriousness of air pollution. I would begin by reminding you that air pollution today has been reduced by a very large percentage, and many would say there is no need to reduce certain criteria at all.
      Therefore, when I suggest that ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants should be allowed to compete with natural gas, it’s because the emissions, except for CO2, can meet all EPA regulations with the use of proper emission controls.
      As you know, the USPC plant probably can’t compete economically with NGCC today because of the low cost of natural gas.
      But, if the economics change then they should be allowed to be built.
      Yes, there should be debate after the baseline costs have been established, but I’m not smart enough to establish how to calculate externalities, and I don’t believe anyone else is either.
      I’m not hiding, because that’s not my style. I just understand my limitations and those of most other people.

      • March 14, 2015 11:14 pm

        A well-reasoned response.

        And I’ve always appreciated the way you put yourself out there, intelligently supporting your views.

        I’m going to propose, tongue-in-cheekedly, a one-word (neologism) theme for what we’ve been touching upon here. Complification: To fleece the masses by illuminating a problem so complex that no one will notice how you trojan-horsed your con within a surface-plausible, yet ultimately bogus, “solution.”

        Evil interests can easily complificate. I can easily fall for it.

        See, I’m overwhelmed by the Energy Riddle, frankly, and not just because I’m a simple country bubba. I look around for pollution and energy solutions, and I see load of folks proposing all sorts of panaceas, whirling gizmos, and gee-wizardry. And in pretty much every case the true cost of what’s being pitched is obscured, exaggerated or hidden.

        Worse, we can’t even agree on what “cost” means. Production costs? Production costs plus negative externality costs? Check out the “Avoided Cost” phrase used in net-meter legislation, mandating that my local utility buy my Solar PV electricity and pay me the “cost” I helped it avoid:

        https://sites.google.com/site/gridtiedsolarpv/home/defining-avoided-cost

        See how politicized — how politicizable — that phrase has become?

        You just know a policy area is going to reach a vexatious level of insolubility when you can’t even get competing interests to agree on a seemingly simple term — if only for the sake of advancing more useful debate.

        Worse, we get bogged down, so that no one wants to take a crack at it. No one wants to say OK, I’m going to define obscenity clearly and unquestionably, so no one goes to jail in ex post facto (after the fact) fashion. No one wants to say OK, I’m going to assign a dollar value to X amount of crap that even super-efficient coal and gas plants spew into the environment so that I may conclude, for example, that Desmond’s $1/watt Solar PV array beats out that $1.40/watt gas-turbine generation plant. Or not (because when one adds on grid-integration costs for absorbing the variable power generated by solar, it’s really $2.00/watt, or whatever).

        No one wants to QUANTIFY, let alone define, cost, and do so in a way that enables the masses to understand this area, and intelligently vote on it.

        Do we roll with:

        Cost to build and operate + Cost to our environment?

        Or just Cost to build and operate?

        You tell me.

        You won’t.

        No one will.

        So we all just stand behind our ideological barricades and do nothing.

        But then, you know what happens. A vacuum forms, and the “Complificators” fill that vacuum with their cons (the next Solyndra). Their bribologists (lobbyists) infect government so that they can feed from the public dollar trough directly (DOE grants) and indirectly (tax credits, deductions and capitalization rules).

        And that’s how you and I wind up reading online, or in Forbes, how the next Solyndra boondoggle copped zillions of our money, and has been picked as the latest “winner.”

        Because we did nothing, and did not even assist understanding of this area, thus leaving a multi-trillion-dollar industry to the special-interest wolf packs.

        You know what happens then. The first energy-producing modality to get the government’s ear “wins.” And that win is artificial because the government has picked the winner, not the free market.

        Worse, it wins not on the merits but because of complificational hype. Because of irrational reasons, rather than good energy/ecology/economic reasons.

        So Donn, I say take a stab at defining cost in a fair manner — so that apples can be compared to apples. Value Solar PV because it uses no water and emits no pollution (beyond its embedded, panel-production cost). Then, sure, deduct some value because of PV’s lack of baseload quality. Then re-value it when feasible grid integration comes along, etc.

        Similarly value up and down brown-power sourcing.

        Because it’s wrong to send people to prison for a line drawn after the fact.

        And it’s wrong to DEFAULT to those economically vested interests (currently, brown-power, which got to the table first) and let them make the Big Decisions about just how much cement dust you and I must inhale every day.

        Take the shot, Donn. You’re smarter and better resourced than I’ll ever be, and you’ve got this excellent forum that you’ve built. Take the shot and propose a reasonable way to assign cost to stuff — at the simple, mpg or $1/watt level — so that Joe Six Pack can say yes, I will vote on that energy proposal because I can rationally measure the costs and benefits, apples to apples, and yes, that makes sense to me.

        That’s how we get “the masses” involved in this area, and thus help effect real, solid change.

        “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

        — Martin Luther King

  5. March 15, 2015 1:02 pm

    Here’s a “Big Picture” opinion piece that’s worth reading:

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/fossil-fuels-will-save-the-world-really-1426282420?mod=e2fb

    • March 15, 2015 1:21 pm

      Thanks. I have read it.
      The book, The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels, by Alex Epstein, is also worth reading. I have it on order, but have read excerpts.

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