Ocean lovers, from fishermen to surfers, have long known the power of waves. Now electricity companies are also beginning to take notice.
The Finnish renewable technology company Wello announced at the end of February that it had successfully created a wave energy converter that had passed screening tests and was ready for full-scale deployment. The first 0.5 megawatt (MW) device, called Penguin, will be plugged in at the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) that already hosts various underwater and ocean energy devices in Orkney, an archipelago of islands north of Scotland.
The device passed extensive testing and environmental impact studies over the last few years, Wello said. The 220-ton shiplike vessel is approximately 30 meters long and is held in place by three wires anchored to the seabed below. As it sits in the ocean riding the waves and capturing kinetic energy—the power of motion—for energy production, only about 2 meters of the Penguin is visible above the surface of the water.
According to Wello, the device may have a longer lifespan than most wind turbines while producing power with the same ease and consistency. Wave energy is in fact one of the more reliable power sources among the renewables because it can operate fairly consistently. Through rain and shine, the ocean is almost always in motion. There are of course moments of stillness, but they are easily compensated in the long run by stormy weather conditions that produce giant waves.
But wave power also faces some of the same challenges that wind power, and particularly offshore wind power, faces. Wave power can do little if it isn’t connected to the grid, but transmission lines that reach all the way into the ocean are difficult and costly to build. And power companies won’t build the lines until there is a significant financial incentive in producing power from the ocean. So developers first need to build very good, cheap devices that can produce significant numbers of megawatts before power companies will take wave energy seriously. One Penguin device produces a sixth of the power a typical 3 MW wind turbine can produce, and only a quarter of the power of a smaller 2 MW turbine.
Among some of the first approved wave energy devices, the Penguin’s success or failure will help determine if wave energy catches on. There was a time when wind and solar power probably seemed like far-fetched dreams. Will wave power be a household term in a decade? And what will that mean for fish and underwater ecosystems? What will that mean for ocean lovers who bask in the wide open undisturbed sea? As companies slowly test the devices, the costs may or may not prove to outweigh the benefits. But boasting zero emissions and a never-ending source of free fuel, ocean power may be more successful than anyone could have ever imaged.