As wind blows across the surface of the sea, it transfers loads of energy — in the form of a wave — to the water below. In fact, research suggests the ocean’s waves could offer limitless renewable energy — enough to help meet the world’s immense power demands as we shift away from fossil fuels in the coming decades.
Each year, the waves off the coasts of the United States could provide an estimated 2.64 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In fact, tapping into that energy could account for 60 percent of the country’s annual electricity needs and power 18 million homes, according to estimates from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado. This so-called blue power is particularly abundant along the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and the East Coast.
But how do we turn rough surf into electricity that’s capable of powering our cars, homes, and all our daily needs?
Harnessing sea power
Scientists have developed a menagerie of wave energy conversion devices — or WECs — that capture and use the energy from ocean waves, including high-tech buoy-like devices and mats that bulge and contract below the water’s surface. But at the moment, researchers haven’t settled on one design that seems most effective, Michael Lawson, lead researcher of the water power research group at NREL, tells Inverse. “It’s still to be determined what ultimately commercially successful wave energy converters will look like.”
Lawson compares today’s nascent wave energy industry to the early days of wind power. In the 1970s, companies were still exploring different turbine designs. But since then, the wind energy industry has picked up speed: In 2022, it represented 11 percent of the electricity generation in the U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration.
“It took a long time for the industry to research all those different concepts and come to the conclusion that the three-bladed wind turbine was the most effective solution for utility-scale power generation,” Lawson says. “It didn't happen overnight — it happened over decades.”
Currently, drawing power from the seas comes with a host of technical challenges. For instance, experts have to make sure the WEC’s coatings are both environmentally friendly and able to withstand a steady beating from the waves. Researchers must also ensure that devices won’t harm marine animals or fragile coastal environments.
But cutting edge-tech that received a patent last year could prove a game changer: Distributed embedded energy converter technologies, also known as DEEC-Tec, work like a quilt of many tiny energy converters (each one is typically just a few centimeters in size) weaved into a single structure that can contort into different shapes to gather energy more efficiently.
Inside each converter, a stretchy structure contains positive and negative electrodes — when strained by the water, the gap between the electrodes narrows and they generate electricity. NREL has a few potential designs for this “fabric,” including the aforementioned machines that float on the water’s surface, along with a structure that dances with the waves like a car dealership balloon.
“When you have a material with smaller embedded energy converters, it becomes more flexible,” Elaine Buck, marine energy technology manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office, tells Inverse. “That flexibility and the fact that the energy converters are across a much wider surface area allows them to collect more wave energy. It's exciting, early-stage research and it could really do some incredible things for wave energy.”
The U.S. rides the wave
As with wind energy, the United States is playing catch-up with Europe — which has emerged as a leader in wave energy development and has already been testing it for decades.
But the country’s first utility-scale, grid-connected wave energy test site — called PacWave — could be up and running by 2025 in Newport, Oregon. At the Oregon State University-operated facility, wave energy developers will test different technologies and transmit that juice to the local electrical grid.
Once fully operational, it could accommodate up to 20 wave energy devices at a time, producing a maximum of 20 megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 2,000 homes.
“It will provide an amazing test ground for the industry to come and put their devices in the water and see how they function and do the learning that's necessary to advance these devices further down the commercialization pathway,” Lawson says.
If you’re excited for massive energy wave farms to come online, you’ll probably have to wait a few decades. Right now, the DOE and researchers are working on making WECS more efficient, reliable, and hardy with the “goal to get to grid-scale power within the next 10 years,” Buck said.
In the meantime, these technologies will be used at a smaller scale by the DOE and startups to power offshore industries like seafood farms and ocean monitoring. Wave energy may also be useful in the wake of natural disaster situations by providing power after blackouts or powering water desalinization facilities.
“That’s a very expanded perspective,” Buck says. "There's a lot of excitement that's going on in this space."
The Cusp is a weekly Inverse series that offers a sneak peek at the science and technology that could power our future.