At first glance, waves have the makings of an ideal renewable energy source. They’re predictable, constant, and tremendously powerful. Their energy potential is astonishing — researchers estimate that waves off the coasts of the United States could generate as much as 2.64 trillion kilowatt-hours annually or the equivalent of 64 percent of the country’s total electricity generation in 2019.
But capturing the immense power radiating across our oceans’ surfaces is no easy feat — wave energy technology is challenging to engineer, start-up costs are high, and testing in open ocean waters is a regulatory nightmare. That’s why wave energy’s trajectory has been a stop-and-go affair plagued by false starts for decades. But things may finally be starting to shift for the industry: The federal government recently approved the first full-scale, utility grid-connected wave energy test site in the U.S.
The Oregon State University-led project, PacWave South, is a 2-square-mile patch of ocean 7 miles off the rugged Oregon coast, where developers and companies can perform large-scale testing of their wave energy technologies. It will cost $80 million and is scheduled to be up and running by 2023. The design includes four testing “berths,” where wave energy devices will be moored to the seafloor and connected to buried cables carrying electricity to an onshore facility. In total, the PacWave South facility will be able to test up to 20 wave energy devices at once.
While wave energy technology is still in the research and development phase, experts see it as a promising newcomer to the renewable energy landscape. In 2019, the global wave energy market was valued at $43.8 million and is expected to more than triple by 2027.
“Before you get certification to develop a commercial-scale farm, you have to actually demonstrate success at full scale,” said Jesse Roberts, an environmental analysis lead at Sandia National Laboratories’ Water Power Technologies department. “Now that this test facility exists, there’s actually a pathway to doing that in the United States.”