Video: Wave Power Moves Towards Commercial Scale

Wave Star's 500 kW demonstration unit

By Paul Benecki 2016-05-07 15:18:33

Innovation often comes with a high up-front price, and alternative energy is no exception. Early wind turbines were small, and the cost of their electricity was high relative to conventional sources. But economies of scale have narrowed that gap over the intervening years, to the point that Bloomberg New Energy Finance finds that the contracted rates from certain new wind and solar projects are cheaper than any other available source in the world, despite low coal and oil prices. Improved technology has dramatically cut the cost of turbines and solar panels, and wind and sun are free, making maintenance the primary operating expense – whereas a coal facility must continue to purchase coal. And the advantage may increase: “every time global wind power doubles, there's a 19 percent drop in cost . . . and every time solar power doubles, costs fall 24 percent,” BNEF estimates. 

Wave and tidal energy companies would like to reach the same point, but the technology is still in the development phase. Few grid-connected test projects exist, and their generation costs are still high relative to other options in most locations. But their potential is huge, advocates say, measured in the thousands of gigawatt -hours. 

In their initial phases of commercialization, wave and tidal technologies may perform best in locations with a combination of favorable ocean conditions and high conventional electricity costs, analysts suggest – places like Hawaii, remote parts of Alaska, or Chile, which for many years had the most expensive power prices in South America. 

Chile has committed $20 million to a new Marine Energy Research & Innovation Center (MERIC), a high-profile collaborative effort between Chile's economic development agency CORFO, the French defense and energy conglomerate DCNS, the Italian firm Enel Green Power and associated Chilean partners. Chile's Prime Minister Michelle Bachelet and French President Francois Hollande were present at the signing of the cooperative agreement. 

Chile expects a 50 percent increase in power demand over the span of the next 10 years, and has committed to meeting the need through renewables, reports IPS. Its government has set a target of 40 percent clean energy sources by 2035, and 70 percent by the middle of the century – and it sees wave power as a key possibility. A recent study suggested that harnessing 10 percent of the nation’s wave and tidal potential could nearly double Chile’s power supply – if problems of technology, geography and power transmission can be overcome (the energy potential is largely in the south, whereas demand is concentrated in the north). 

An additional option to narrow the cost gap with conventional power is to pool resources with existing projects – for example, operating in tandem with offshore wind installations. Wave Star, based in Denmark, has won a $23 million grant from EU Horizon 2020 for the development and testing of a one MW full scale prototype at a wind farm operated by the utility company Parkwind. Parkwind will provide the grid connection, saving the cost of hooking up the wave device to shore via a subsea cable. EU Horizon expects that the power cost from the system will be "in line with the cost of offshore wind energy," or about $0.17 per kWh. Other project partners include DNV GL, STX France, marine construction firm Jan De Nul, and the Universities of Aalborg, Gent, and Cantabria. 

The cost of R&D remains a potential hurdle for many of the projects. Wave Star said in a Facebook post Wednesday that it is still seeking matching funding for its portion of the grant commitment, and would have additional updates soon. "It takes time to find self-financing for such a project and we are not yet in place. We will return soon with a new status," the group said.