Making Waves on the Energy Scene

By David L. Brown

Of the various renewable energy options that have been considered in recent decades, such as solar and wind power, one that has made the least progress has been wave energy. I remember in 1971 leafing through a magazine in Germany that featured an illustrated article about the idea of turning the kinetic power of ocean waves into electricity.

Now at last, that idea may be about to take off. An article in the June 10-16 issue of The Economist describes the first stages of what is to become the world’s first “wave-power farm” on the coast of Portugal. Here’s a sampling from the article, entitled “Making Waves”:

… Near Póvoa de Varzim, off the northern coast of Portugal, three 150-metre-long articulated snake-like pontoons, called Pelamis Wave Energy Converters, are in the final stages of being hooked up to the country’s national grid, says Andrew Scott of Ocean Power Delivery, the firm behind them. Each one has three power-converter modules distributed along its length, which transform the flexing motion at the snake’s joints into electricity as the snakes are buffeted by the waves. The three snakes are the first stage of a planned 24-megawatt wave-power farm, which will be capable of providing 15,000 households with power. The Pelamis’s design avoids the trade-off between resilience and efficiency by switching to a higher-efficiency mode in calm seas.

According to the Economist article (read it here, subscription requred), a new and more efficient design lies behind this program, providing up to ten times the output of earlier designs which proved too expensive to build and operate.

Wave power is another “green” option that could go far toward reducing humanity’s dependence upon non-renewable and polluting energy sources. According to an estimate from the U.S. Dept.of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, wave power on America’s East Coast could provide 10 to 25 times more electricity than the entire wind power potential of the Midwest. That’s quite a statement, and offers hope that we can begin to tap another source of clean and renewable energy in the near future.

Unlike the ethanol mania that is currently sweeping the land — promoting an inefficient, non-sustainable process whose main purpose seems to be to transfer money from the pockets of taxpayers and consumers into those of farmers, agri-businesses and investors in ethanol plants — wave power, like solar and wind, could make an important contribution toward building sustainable energy for the future.

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