Looking off the coast of Garden Island in Western Australia, all you’ll see is the ocean. But under the waves, the world’s first grid-connected power plant is pumping out enough energy for as many as 2,000 houses.
Switched on last month after a decade of development, the power plant uses buoys that bob up and down with each wave, driving an underwater pump that pushes pressurized fluid onshore to spin turbines and create electricity.
“Wave energy has significant potential to play a role in the world’s future energy mix, alongside other more established renewables like solar and wind,” says Michael Ottaviano, CEO of Carnegie Wave Energy, the company that developed the technology. “Wave has the advantage of being more consistent and predictable than, say, wind energy.”
It also takes less space. Because water is 800 times denser than air–and packed with more energy–a small wave farm can produce the same amount of power as a sprawling field of solar panels. Carnegie’s technology is unique in that it’s also fully submerged under the water. Because it doesn’t disrupt views, it can avoid some of the controversy that offshore wind farms face, like the long-suffering Cape Wind offshore wind development project in Massachusetts. It’s also better protected from storms than other wave tech.
The company claims that the technology doesn’t disrupt wildlife; in one trial along the Australian coast, researchers discovered that the wave plant actually attracted marine life, like an artificial coral reef. After the project was installed, 20 new species showed up in the area.
Soon, Carnegie’s new plant will add desalination, using wave power to produce zero emission freshwater. “Reverse osmosis is a very energy intensive process, so it’s logical to consider sustainable options to supply that energy,” Ottaviano says.
Despite the advantages of the technology, wave energy has been slow to grow compared with other renewables. Ottaviano says this is largely because it hasn’t received the same government funding.
“Nearly every other form of power technology, whether its nuclear, gas, solar or wind, has been either fully or nearly fully de-risked through the technology development phase by governments, and often defense departments specifically–think jet engines becoming gas turbines or PV panels being used on space shuttles,” says Ottaviano. “Wave hasn’t benefited from that long term consistent support and as such has been left to try and find the private capital to mitigate the early stage development risks.”
Now that the new pilot is demonstrating that wave energy works, it may finally start to take off. “As success is achieved, confidence builds, and commercial reality edges closer,” Ottaviano says. The pilot plans to add more capacity in the coming months, and eventually produce 1 megawatt of electricity. Ultimately, the company believes wave energy could power entire coastal communities.