At first glance, waves have the makings of an ideal renewable energy source. They’re predictable, constant, and tremendously powerful. Their energy potential is astonishing—researchers estimate that waves off the coasts of the United States could generate as much as 2.64 trillion kilowatt-hours annually, equivalent to 64 percent of the country’s total electricity generation in 2019.
But capturing the immense power radiating across our oceans’ surfaces is no easy feat—wave energy technology is challenging to engineer, startup costs are high, and testing in open ocean waters is a regulatory nightmare. That’s why wave energy’s trajectory has been a stop-and-go affair plagued by false starts for decades. But things may finally be starting to shift for the industry: The federal government recently approved the first full-scale, utility-grid-connected wave energy test site in the US.
The Oregon State University-led project, PacWave South, is a 2-square-mile patch of ocean 7 miles off the rugged Oregon coast, where developers and companies can perform large-scale testing of their wave energy technologies. It will cost $80 million and is scheduled to be up and running by 2023. The design includes four testing “berths,” where wave energy devices will be moored to the seafloor and connected to buried cables carrying electricity to an onshore facility. In total, the PacWave South facility will be able to test up to 20 wave energy devices at once.
While wave energy technology is still in the research and development phase, experts see it as a promising newcomer to the renewable energy landscape. In 2019 the global wave energy market was valued at $43.8 million, and it is expected to more than triple by 2027.
“Before you get certification to develop a commercial-scale farm, you have to actually demonstrate success at full scale,” said Jesse Roberts, an environmental analysis lead at Sandia National Laboratories’ Water Power Technologies department. “Now that this test facility exists, there’s actually a pathway to doing that in the United States.”
There is only one comparable site to PacWave worldwide, in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, according to the Oregon project’s chief scientist, Burke Hales. While there is a wave energy test site in Hawaii, it is only set up for specific types of the technology. The Oregon site, meanwhile, can support almost any type of system. Although many early wave energy projects will depend on federal grants, Hales said, the hope is that the testing facility will also allow companies to attract venture capitalists and angel investors by proving devices’ technological feasibility.
“Even somebody like Bill Gates isn’t going to pay somebody millions of dollars to do tests that they think will fail,” Hales said. “Feasibility is pretty important.”
Bill Staby, who founded the Boston-based wave energy company Resolute Marine Energy in 2007, knows from experience that a key barrier for companies like his is getting permission to test in a real-world ocean environment. Much of Resolute Marine Energy’s testing so far has taken place in wave tanks and labs, but those scenarios can’t demonstrate the device’s ability to weather rough ocean conditions. It might seem simple enough to install a device in the empty ocean, Staby said, but “there’s a huge number of stakeholders, federal and state regulators that decide what goes in where and when.”
Wave energy is promising on its own, but it becomes game-changing when considered as part of a diversified renewable energy portfolio, said Kelley Ruehl, who works in Sandia National Laboratories’ Water Power Technologies department. When the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, waves can be there to fill in the gaps. “What a diverse energy portfolio does is it gives more resiliency to the system,” Ruehl said.