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April 2016 Issue

Catalyzing Advancements in Ocean Energy
Dr. Alison LaBonte
Marine and hydrokinetic energy represents a promising, low-carbon form of energy that can help meet future electricity demand in the United States. With more than 50 percent of the nation’s population living within 50 mi. of the coastline, the potential to provide clean, renewable electricity to communities close to the source of ocean power is very appealing.

Waves provide a continual source of energy, whether it’s sunny or cloudy, whether it’s windy or calm. Recent studies (http://energy.gov/eere/water/downloads/mapping-and-assessment-united-states-ocean-wave-energy-resource) found that the technically recoverable wave energy resource is estimated to range between 898 to 1,229 terawatt-hours (TWh) per year, distributed across the coast of Alaska, the West Coast, the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. For context, approximately 90,000 homes can be powered by 1 TWh per year. This means that even if only 5 percent of the potential is recovered, millions of homes could be powered by wave energy as the technology progresses.

With such great potential, why isn’t wave energy already a significant source of electricity, particularly in wave-rich areas such as the West Coast of the U.S.? One of the most significant barriers to large-scale implementation today is cost—until costs fall significantly and prices are competitive with more traditional forms of energy, the potential wave energy represents will remain just that—potential.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) believes it’s possible to harness this potential if a technology leap in wave energy converter (WEC) devices can be achieved. If increased efficiency in WECs can be realized in the short term, wave energy can get on the pathway to achieve sweeping cost reductions that could ultimately make it competitive with more traditional forms of energy.

To spur the necessary leap in technology, the DOE is sponsoring a 20-month design-build-test competition called the Wave Energy Prize. This public prize challenge aims to achieve game-changing improvements in the efficiency of WEC devices more quickly than would occur by implementing a traditional research and development program. Prize competitions such as this one can spur the development of revolutionary technologies because their open-access structure welcomes newcomers. Their fresh perspectives sometimes bring forth outside-the-box solutions that would otherwise not make it through a traditional research and development process. By leveling the playing field, both existing and new developers have a chance to achieve what may initially appear to be an audacious goal. In the Wave Energy Prize, our specific goal is to develop new technologies capable of doubling the energy captured from ocean waves compared with today’s state-of-the-art devices. WEC devices are in the early stages of technological development, and there are currently several dozen potentially viable technologies in this emerging industry.

The emerging wave energy industry is perfectly poised for a prize challenge, such as the Wave Energy Prize, as researchers and developers seek to prove the viability of their unique technologies. Many of the competitors for the prize will benefit from participating, not only getting their chance at the prize purse totaling more than $2 million, but also having the opportunity to validate their technologies through testing at the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Maneuvering and Seakeeping (MASK) Basin. The MASK Basin, located in Carderock, Maryland, is the nation’s premier wave-making facility.

In the spring of 2015, an astonishing 92 teams registered for the Wave Energy Prize, 66 of which provided technical submissions that were judged over the summer. In August, DOE announced the selection of 20 teams that would continue as official qualified teams. During the fall and winter, these teams designed and built 1/50th-scale models, which were evaluated, through small-scale testing and on a number of other criteria for their potential to achieve the program’s goal.

Is the audacious goal we’ve set achievable? We believe so. A number of Wave Energy Prize competitors’ technologies have demonstrated the potential to double the energy captured from ocean waves, and as a result will continue into the final stages of the Wave Energy Prize. On March 1, DOE announced that nine official finalist teams, as well as two alternates, would receive seed funding to build a 1/20th-scale prototype of their WEC technologies in preparation for testing at the MASK Basin this summer. Upon completion of testing, DOE plans to announce the winner(s) of the Wave Energy Prize in November.

Within our lifetimes, it’s possible that clean, reliable power captured from ocean waves could be brought to millions of American homes. With DOE’s investment in groundbreaking technologies, more efficient WEC devices are on the horizon. To date, our Wave Energy Prize finalist teams have shown great promise, and several have demonstrated a potential to more than meet the program’s goal of doubling the energy captured from ocean waves, compared with today’s state of the art.

By capturing energy more efficiently, we can drive down the cost, making wave energy more competitive with more conventional forms of energy and eliminating what is arguably the biggest barrier to large-scale implementation.

To learn more about the official Wave Energy Prize teams and their technologies, or to follow the latest developments in the prize, visit www.waveenergyprize.org.

Dr. Alison LaBonte is the marine and hydrokinetic technology program manager in the U.S.
Department of Energy’s Wind and Water Power Technologies Office, responsible for the development and execution of the nation’s strategy for advancing marine renewable technologies as viable, cost-competitive energy contributors. She has a Ph.D. in oceanography and B.S. in mathematics.


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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.