Whatever Happened To: Wave Power? Why Is It So Far Behind Wind and Solar?

©. OPT

TreeHugger is ten years old this August. We're taking a look back at some of the changes that have happened in the green movement over the decade.

A few years ago, I was sure that wave power would soon catch up with wind and solar and become part of a renewable trifecta. Sadly, it hasn't really happened (yet), which raises the question "why?".

Dave Levitan at Yale 360 has written a great overview of the current state of affairs in the wave power field, providing some clarity on why progress has been so slow.

sea snake wave power

Pelamis Wave Power/via

Some themes stood out to me:

1. The ocean's a harsh environment for machinery, so costs are higher than to build things on the ground. Salt water corrodes things, waves can get really violent, sending crews to install things and repair them is expensive, etc. Offshore wind farms are always more costly than onshore ones for that reason, for example.

2. R&D; into wave power simply hasn't been a priority. Wind and solar have received a lot more attention.

A recurring theme among wave power experts is that wave energy is where wind energy was three decades ago. At that time, engineers had not settled on the optimal design for wind turbines, but decades of ensuing research have resulted in highly sophisticated turbine designs. With wave power, some research occurred after the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, but since then government and commercial research and development into wave power has paled compared to wind and solar energy.

3. Despite challenges, there is progress. Pilots programs in places like Portugal, Scotland, Australia, etc, are moving forward. Things could start moving faster if a wave power design prototype proves to work really well; sometimes it takes longer to find the right formula than to scale up deployment.

4. But there are also reasons to be pessimistic for wave power. If the cost disadvantages can't be overcome, it simply won't make sense to build wave farms in most places when more wind or solar capacity could be built for the same amount of money.

So it's possible to imagine a future where wave power is cost-effective and widely deployed as one more leg to the renewable stool, but it's an uphill battle. I hope that engineers can figure it out, because we need all the options we can get to clean up our power grid. There might be areas where offshore wind farms can't be built for whatever reason but wave farms can, for example.

Searaser Wave Power photo
©. Searaser/Ecotricity

© Searaser/Ecotricity