Is the tide turning on renewable marine power? Entrepreneurs test wave-powered energy systems

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The Oscilla Power team atop its Triton-C wave energy device before shipping it off to Hawaii this September for its first commercial-scale demonstration. (Oscilla Power Photo)

When people ask Brian Polagye how difficult is it to extract energy from the ocean, he offers an anecdote.

The University of Washington associate professor was at a conference years ago, and heard from the chief technology officer of a marine energy startup who previously developed tech for outer space for many years. The marine sector, said the CTO, was much harder than what he’d dealt with outside our atmosphere.

“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that can’t be right,’” Polagye said. “Space is really, really hard. And the more I’ve come to understand the challenges of working in the ocean, I think he was right. It’s a really challenging problem.”

For years, the development of marine energy — and particularly power from waves — has lagged behind solar and land-based wind power that has taken off.

But now the tide, perhaps, is turning.

Two Pacific Northwest companies are launching groundbreaking tests of wave-powered energy systems. This fall, Seattle’s Oscilla Power and Oregon State University spinout C-Power are for the first time testing their technologies at the U.S. Navy Wave Energy Test Site in Hawaii. And in July, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $27 million in funding for wave energy research and development at the new PacWave South test facility located off the coast of Newport, Ore.

“Globally, wave is at the stage of really being proven out,” said Polagye, who is also director of the Pacific Marine Energy Center, a collaboration between the UW, OSU, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Oscilla Power hopes to catch a wave

Oscilla Power has been working for 13 years to conduct the first commercial-scale tests of its technology.

“Right after we were founded, the bottom fell out of the clean tech industry. That’s why it took us so long to get where we are,” said Balakrishnan (Balky) Nair, co-founder and CEO of Oscilla Power.

Side view of Oscilla Power’s Triton-C wave energy device. (Oscilla Power Photo)

The company was able to stay afloat with about $25 million in investments and grants from state and federal agencies, Nair said.

Oscilla Power has fine-tuned its technology and is deploying its Triton-C, a 100 kilowatt system designed to electrify isolated coastal communities or small facilities. Given the lower wave power at the Hawaii test-site location, the Triton-C will generate about 30 kW of power for roughly 25 homes at the Marine Corps base on Oahu. Oscilla Power also has a larger device, the Triton, which is a 1 megawatt-rated system that is meant to be installed in large arrays to provide utility-scale power to the electrical grid. The company is raising funds for a test of the device.

Nair sees utility-scale wave energy as a compliment to other renewables such as solar and wind. When the sun sets and the wind stops blowing, these renewables need power from batteries or other sources. Nair says the ocean could be a solution.

“Wave energy fits very nicely,” Nair said. “It’s available 24 hours.”

Can wave power pencil out?

So what makes wave power so tricky?

Lots of reasons, experts say. With wave energy, you’re trying to efficiently capture power that’s rippling in all different directions. Oscilla Power does this with a device that floats on the ocean’s surface and can harness the power by moving front to back, side to side, and up and down. Wave energy technology needs to withstand extreme wave events — a threat that solar and wind are less impacted by. And wave energy requires wholesale innovation: there are few analogous terrestrial solutions that could be applied to help speed the technology along.

Once researchers address the technical challenges of wave-generated power, there’s the matter of economics. It took solar and wind decades to become commercially viable. Oscilla Power expects to price its devices at $2-2.5 million per MW to install, including the transmission lines needed to bring the energy ashore. Estimates and circumstances vary, but the installation of solar power costs roughly half as much.

But many of the hurdles are diminishing. Innovation is boosting the energy output of wave devices. The installation of offshore wind is helping pave the way to connecting marine power to land-based users. And last year, an international group of marine scientists generated a report concluding that found, with some caveats, marine renewable energy devices had minimal impact on sea life.And perhaps the biggest challenge going forward is the lack of funding.

The biggest challenge will be drawing enough funding to the sector to allow companies to grow and scale.

Proponents of the technology say there are lots of interesting, potentially viable applications besides utility-scale installations, which carry more risk for investors. Wave energy could power desalination plants to make fresh water, or run fish-producing aquaculture facilities. Corvallis, Ore,-based C-Power, for example, is testing devices that generate smaller amounts of energy that could recharge offshore vessels, underwater vehicles and equipment.

Nair hopes the potential begins translating into venture capital.

“It’s a truly massive opportunity,” he said.