You may not have noticed it, but in news that feels cosmically reflective of life on Earth recently, the moon began to wobble this year — a natural phenomenon that occurs every 18.6 years. While it won’t cause the sky to fall, it will influence our seas, with global tides suppressed in the near-term but amplified in the second half of the cycle. That’s got some watchers concerned about rising sea levels, but it also presents an interesting dynamic to one developing but often overlooked renewable energy source: our planet’s oceans. “Wave energy” proponents believe ocean-focused technologies can someday complement wind and solar, while also being more reliable. In today’s RBN blog, we examine what wave energy is and how it’s produced, the potential pros and cons compared with other renewables, and what type of projects are being developed.
For starters, let’s take a quick look at ocean energy, which includes several concepts that we’ll spell out shortly. Simply put, the main idea involves using the ocean’s waves and tides to produce electricity. The concept itself is not new — a French engineer named Pierre Girard was granted a patent on generating energy from ocean waves in 1799 — but the increased focus on net-zero emissions in recent years has raised its profile and put renewed focus on its potential.
The oceans cover 70% of our planet, so the potential for wave energy is huge, but to a large extent, it’s still in the research-and-development stage. It is estimated that wave energy could produce up to 80,000 terawatt hours (TWh) of power annually, or more than triple today’s total global electricity consumption, but current production is only a tiny sliver of that. Energy from wave and tidal sources have more than doubled since 2017, but total capacity was just 65 megawatts (MW) in 2020, with the Ocean Energy Systems global collaborative hoping to reach 300 gigawatts (GW) by 2050.
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