What is wave energy?

Wave energy is a simple concept with a multitude of complex applications. At its essence, wave energy utilizes the power of ocean waves to create usable electricity. While there is no consensus on the “best” way to harness wave energy, researchers agree that this renewable resource has massive potential to change the global energy landscape.

Current wave energy technology

There are currently hundreds of methods for converting wave power into energy already in use across the globe, and many more theories for recovering wave energy are in the early stages of research. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management identifies four main wave energy technologies in use today:

  • Terminator devices
  • Attenuators
  • Point absorbers
  • Overtopping devices

All four can be based offshore, and all apply similar mechanical principles to extract power from the waves – the rise and fall of waves passing through the machines drives energy to generate power.

Wave energy’s potential

The key difference between wave energy and other, more popular renewable sources like wind and solar, is that it is truly infinite; even when the sun sets and winds halt, waves can continue to provide energy.

While wave energy devices are far behind such more developed technologies as wind turbines and solar panels, scientists see great potential for wave energy to play a part in energy diversification in the future. In fact, wave energy is so potent that it is measured in terawatts, which is 10 million times more powerful than the megawatt (the preferred measurement for wind and solar energy).

According to the Electric Power Research Institute, wave energy’s recoverable resource along the U.S. coast is 1,170 terawatt-hours per year (TWh/yr), with 250 TWh/yr coming from the West Coast alone. Considering that the U.S. uses about 4,000 TWh of electricity per year, wave energy has the potential to account for nearly a third of the total country’s electricity demand.

Other applications of wave energy

Not only can wave energy provide a strong and reliable source of electricity, it can also help solve the world’s clean water crisis. Atmocean, a growing ocean wave energy company, has developed a system that pumps seawater onshore and desalinizes it for use as clean, fresh, drinkable water. The goal of its Zero Electricity Reverse Osmosis system is to help struggling desert nations develop self-sustaining agricultural economies and possibly become exporters of energy in the future.

What can we expect from wave energy?

Wave energy technologies are already generating power in various parts of the world, but the industry is slow to grow. One reason for the delay is a lack of funding for this relatively unknown power source. Another difficulty is that, for its thousands of applications and system designs, none have been able to balance efficiency and cost compared to those of more mature renewable energy systems. But, many agree that with time – and money – wave energy will help renewables power the future.