October 21, 2010
The first time I realized how powerful waves can be, I was ten years old and body-boarding in the Atlantic Ocean…
I caught an incoming wave right at the crest — and it drilled my body into the sand like a railroad spike.
It was hardly the first time someone noticed the awesome power of the sea…
Harnessing waves for energy has been happening since the 18th century. Some say that wave power could eventually supply up to 10% of the world’s energy needs.
What’s more, unlike other renewables like solar and wind which only offer power in certain windows of time, wave energy is relatively predicable and available 80% to 90% of the time.
But the actual process of generating affordable power is as slippery as the waves themselves. A number of companies have tried it, but the costs still remain prohibitively high.
Atmocean, a wave energy company, is hoping to change that. They have developed a new wave capturing device that is promised to be simpler and cheaper than its many predecessors.
Their Wave Energy Sequestration Technology (WEST) has been championed as a game-changer that could provide renewable baseload energy at 2.4 cents per kWh.
Here’s how it works…
WEST devices (basically small buoys) are connected to one another over a stretch of ocean. Each device is tethered to the ocean floor with a cable that supports pairs of opposing panels.
As the buoy rises and falls on passing waves, the motion rotates the panels up and down, driving pistons that create hydraulic pressure. That pressure shoots seawater through the hose, feeding a generator on land.
“Sea water, in a hose, in the ocean,” Atmocean CEO Phil Kithil told me. “It’s a benign and efficient way to bring energy to shore.”
While the other competition have very large apparatus that must be kept closer to shore, Atmocean’s equipment is small enough and can be capture waves farther out, where they tend to be bigger and more consistent.
“We say, keep it simple — the ocean is such a harsh environment, and anything that can break will break,” Kithil explained.
That’s what happened with the Pelamis device, which was the first commercial attempt to bring electricity into the grid from wave energy.
After Portugal opened a wave farm using the 750-ton snakelike devices to harness the wave power, they had to halt the project after the devices broke down from the ocean’s constant assault.
By keeping the design small and simplistic, Kithil hopes to avoid similar pitfalls.
“And I mean, how many 750-ton snakes can we have floating around in the ocean?” he laughed.
In tandem with Rutgers University, Atmocean is currently in the process of setting up a pilot program to test the WEST devices. They are planning to install 10 to 20 units 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey.
Over the course of a year, the team will measure the durability of the WEST devices, as well as the ecological and environmental effects of the devices on the ocean itself.
Aside from creating cheap, clean energy, the WEST system could offer some unique side benefits.
The WEST’s upwelling process summons nutrients from the ocean floor into higher elevations. Phytoplankton thrive in such conditions; since phytoplankton absorb carbon, they end up sequestering the CO2 when they die, trapping it at the bottom of the sea…
Atmocean contends that this degree of sequestration could eventually “play a critical role in restoring our ocean environment.” In the following video, Atmocean chief scientist Dr. Brian Von Herzen explains the process in greater detail:
The WEST buoys can also serve as ocean sensors, which could provide scientists with valuable ocean data.
Atmocean has received some helpful exposure after qualifying for the General Electric’s Ecomagination challenge. They are currently among the top 100 finalists.
If they qualify, Atmocean will receive a chunk of the $200 million prize money, which could go a long way in developing the WEST technology into commercially viable projects.
They have also joined with the United States Navy to develop a pilot program in Guam, with the eventual goal of reducing the agency’s fossil fuel consumption 50% by 2020.
Keep an eye on Green Chip Stocks for updates on the ongoing process.
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