Wave energy and power provide us with an opportunity to collect the resources that our oceans and large bodies of water offer every day. The technologies that allow us to produce electricity from the movement of water are useful in a variety of applications, and it is already compatible with our existing infrastructure. It enables us to create the energy resources we need without a significant impact on our environment.
The idea to use waves and tides to generate power dates back to the 18th century. Thousands of patents have explored ways to improve how we can collect this form of hydropower since then, and the modern approach uses five different methods depending on how the water movements are along the shoreline.
An underwater substation routes the energy created by spars, heave plates, or floats that interact with the incoming waves. Then cables connect buoys to the connection points to ensure that the structures remain in place while robust tidal forces interact with them.
Because of the environmentally friendly nature of this technology, it is imperative to review the advantages and disadvantages of wave energy and power.
List of the Advantages of Wave Energy and Power
1. Wave energy and power is accessible on almost any body of water.
When we harvest energy from tidal movements, then there are limited geographic locations where the usefulness of this technology is worth the investment. Wave energy and power takes a different approach. Any body of water offers the potential to generate power whenever gravity and wind interact with it. Even landlocked countries with large lakes could use this renewable resource as a way to generate supplemental electricity.
Even if the waves that interact with the shoreline are only half a meter in size, the energy density of that movement creates the potential for 20 kilowatts of production. That means the U.S. and Australia both have the potential to generate almost 3,000 terawatts of electricity.
2. It is an environmentally friendly approach to generating power.
Although it takes fossil fuels to complete the manufacturing process for the equipment that is needed to produce wave energy and power, we have the potential to create a net reduction in greenhouse gases with this technology. Harnessing the energy from the waves on our lakes and oceans gives us a way to stop using combustion as a primary form of electricity generation. With fewer particulates entering the atmosphere, we can reduce the health issues that are directly connected to pollution at the same time we’re generating the power we need for the modern lifestyle.
3. Wave energy and power is a predictable resource.
Wave energy and power works in two unique ways. We can tap into the movement of water as it comes toward the shore with collection devices and take advantage of the natural tides that occur every day. The gravitational fields that interact with our planet from the sun and the moon create tidal forces that generate water movements. Some of the world’s largest lakes can even experience this effect.
That’s why wave energy and power is a global resource to consider. Even though some locations have more potential than others, we can build systems that maximize the generation capabilities of each one so that we can lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.
4. It allows us to free up land resources for other purposes.
When we start using wave energy and power as the primary resource for our electricity production needs, then we can free up land resources for our other needs. This technology harnesses the power of waves as they come into shore with turbines that can have an underwater installation. That means we can transition away from our traditional power plants without altering our lifestyle.
It only takes about one square kilometer to generate about 30 megawatts of power in a prime location, which is enough energy to power over 20,000 households. Since the electricity is stable and works with our current grid, we can combine our renewables with wave energy and power to eliminate the need for dirtier alternatives, such as coal or biomass.
5. Wave energy and power is always going to be present in our world.
Hydropower is our primary renewable energy resource because the movement of water is something that won’t stop. It accounts for about 70% of the renewables sector in the United States today, although wave energy and power aren’t part of that statistic. Our water won’t disappear any time soon, so the ocean and our larger lakes will always offer the potential for energy collection.
It is up to each country, state, province, or community to decide if they want to pursue an investment in this green technology. Although it isn’t the cheapest method of generating power, it might be the one that impacts the environment the least.
6. It reduces our need to mine raw materials for combustion.
Wave energy and power won’t eliminate the need for mining activities, but it will reduce the need for dangerous forms of raw material excavation. We won’t need as much coal, natural gas, or oil in a world that focuses on this technology, which means the health issues that these workers face will impact fewer families. It also creates fewer hazards, like wastewater pools, since we won’t be processing as many materials.
7. Wave energy and power are useful in low-speed applications.
We don’t need to have water moving at high speeds to benefit from its movement to spin turbines or generate power. The density of water is 1,000 times higher than what we get from wind movements, which means a wave moving at three feet per second can produce the energy we need. We can also generate electricity with this renewable resource on cloudy days, when the wind levels are fast, or if there is no wind at all. That’s why there are so many potential installation sites when collecting power from waves instead of only focusing on the tidal movements of the ocean.
8. It comes with a low operational cost and fewer maintenance issues.
We can place wave energy collectors near any coastline. It can go into underwater locations that don’t impact the visual aesthetics of our shores. Communities that have lakes with the right speed of wave movement can use this option to supplement their energy needs. Most of the facilities that use this approach to electricity creation are self-sustaining once we bring them online.
That means there are no fuel costs, fewer transportation impacts, and less maintenance to manage with wave power and energy. If the initial investment is manageable, then the long-term benefits can make this technology a profitable experience for everyone.
9. Wave energy and power reduces our reliance on imported fossil fuels.
The development of wave energy and power decreases international dependence on fossil fuel products. We can take hydrocarbons from natural products to produce the thousands of items we use every day. Plant-based fuels, such as ethanol, along with the entire renewables sector, can work with this technology to create a predictable outcome. Although the countries that rely on oil or natural gas for a majority of their income would need to diversify their economies, the world will become a cleaner place over time without the requirement to make significant lifestyle changes.
List of the Disadvantages of Wave Energy and Power
1. Wave energy and power facilities dominate the water landscapes with their presence.
When we install wave energy and power facilities in an underwater location, then that area becomes off-limits for any other activity. Although people could still use the beach or the shoreline, there couldn’t be any recreational activities on the water. Swimmers would run the risk of suffering an injury in that area, while boats could potentially damage the equipment. Dedicated movement areas would need to be part of the design in some communities to ensure access to the water was unimpeded.
If installation occurs in a popular area, then a reduction in tourism could have a negative impact on the economy.
2. Some locations would need their size or scope restricted.
Coastal facilities that collect wave energy and power would need to meet specific size restrictions in some locations. Established businesses and economic activities would likely take a priority, so that means we’d need to design a system that works with the current usage levels. This disadvantage could lead to limits on the amount of energy we could collect, making the investment questionable in some situations.
3. The equipment for wave energy and power could impact marine life.
The floats, heave plates, and other equipment necessary for the generation of wave energy and power could have adverse impacts on marine life. This approach to power generation could disrupt the magnet fields that underwater species use to migrate, find food, and conduct other activities. Spinning turbines could create a dangerous hazard for some fish and mammals. Since there haven’t been any meaningful studies that look at the potential dangers, any installation would need to proceed with caution to reduce its potential impact.
4. Wave energy and power is expensive compared to other forms of electricity.
One of the reasons why we don’t pursue more nuclear energy facilities today is because of the cost. New facilities require billions of dollars in upfront investments, creating a cost of about $0.18 per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. Wave energy and power is even more expensive, coming in at just under $0.20 per kilowatt-hour – and that price excludes financing costs that nuclear energy includes.
Although there are a handful of facilities that are online around the world, none of them are the primary source of electricity for their country. Wave power and energy still needs more research and development before it can become a viable option for all of us to use.
5. Only specific geographic locations are suitable for wave energy.
Although wave energy and power are theoretically possible in any lake-based or shoreline location, there must be some specific traits present in a geographic location to maximize the electricity generation capabilities of a facility. The tidal range must be a minimum of 23 feet to generate enough water movement to spin turbines, with each wave moving at 3 feet per second at a minimum.
That means out of the almost 3,000 terawatts of potential energy that the U.S. could generate using this technology, only 0.6 terawatts is considered to be economically viable currently. Since most installations won’t be profitable with our current technologies in this space, other forms of renewables receive more attention.
6. Some geographic locations may not generate power around-the-clock.
The reason why some geographic locations are not economically viable for this solution is their significant stall times. Some wave and tidal patterns require 12 hours to develop. That means the amount of electricity we can create from them is naturally limited. We could develop other renewable resources in the same location, such as solar or offshore wind, but it would come with an additional investment cost.
That’s the reason why the United States isn’t developing this technology extensively. Most of the feasible locations for wave energy and power have extensive stall periods to consider.
7. Wave energy and power would alter marine traffic.
The wake that boats leave behind them would create waves that could overwhelm the wave energy and power collectors with its motion. That means the areas that manage commercial shipping traffic would need to alter their course to avoid creating wakes that would travel to these facilities. A wake moves from 20 to 40 degrees away from the middle of the craft, which means tankers and our largest vessels could impact a facility from thousands of yards away.
This disadvantage means that we would need to manage the increased costs of managing our commercial marine traffic while paying more for the electricity we need. That means we’d have less money to direct toward other needs.
8. Tides might be predictable, but waves are not.
Captain Jules Dumont d’Urville, who was also a scientist, reported waves in the Indian Ocean that were over 100 feet high. Despite having three colleagues as witnesses, his report was publicly ridiculed. Stories from sailors that date back hundreds of years show that significant waves can come into shore. The statistical model known as the Gaussian function shows that a wave of 98 feet could happen. That means a high potential for damage would be possible when collecting wave power and energy.
This disadvantage can also occur in lakes. A phenomenon known as the Three Sisters on Lake Superior happens frequently, where a series of three large waves forms. This issue is believed to be responsible for the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975.
9. Weather events could damage the wave energy and power equipment.
Any power generation facility could experience this potential disadvantage. The issue with wave power and energy is that it faces atmospheric and underwater threats. Ocean conditions from hurricanes, tropical storms, or waterspouts offer the potential for immense destruction. If we are going to pursue the further development of this technology, then we must find a way to safeguard the equipment.
That’s why we typically install these facilities in protected bays or lagoons. It limits the amount of energy we can create, but this decision also reduces our risk of a destructive event.
10. Wave energy and power facilities can generate noise pollution.
Most people find the sound of waves crashing into the shore to be a peaceful experience. Even when it is loud, the sight of a massive wall of water spraying against a rocky cliff can be an awe-inspiring sight. When we add in the turbines and other equipment that generate electricity from this water movement, then the noise is going to continue all of the time. Households that live close to the facility would always have this noise in the background.
The audio and visual disruptions that would be necessary for this power generation opportunity are likely the reason why we’ve seen very little development of this technology in over two centuries.
Wave energy and power offers us the potential to stop using fossil fuels at some point in the future. As we look for ways to reduce emissions and our dependence on specific forms of power, it is imperative to find a meaningful solution quickly. Estimates from the scientific community and the United Nations suggest that we have until 2030 to figure out how to change our society.
If we don’t change our ways by then, the world could find itself on a path toward civilization destruction.
The advantages and disadvantages of wave energy and power are clear. Although it is an expensive approach to electricity production, it is also one that provides a lot of environmental benefits. We might be at a point in time where the cost of the technology is less important than the promised outcomes it offers.
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.