Wave energy: can ocean power solve the global energy crisis?

wave energy
Wave energy might help meet the increasing global electricity demand.
Image: Polina Kuzovkova/Unsplash
  • Wave energy could meet all the world’s electricity needs.
  • But technologies to harness wave energy are still developing.
  • Ocean power generation needs to grow by 33% a year to achieve a net-zero world by 2050, says the International Energy Agency.

Could the waves in our oceans and seas help tackle the global energy crisis?

In theory, yes. Wave energy globally could meet the world’s annual electricity needs, if it was fully harnessed, scientists have estimated.

Indeed, the waves around the United States coasts could provide 66% of the country’s electricity, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Many countries - including Australia, China, Denmark, Italy, Korea, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and the US - are currently developing wave energy.

But what exactly is it and how does it compare to other renewable energy sources?

Countries around the worldare installing more wave energy capacity. Image: ScienceDirect
Wave energy capacity.

What is wave energy?

Waves are formed when wind blows over the surface of water. Devices called wave energy converters capture the energy from waves and turn it into electricity.

Different approaches are used. Some devices sit beneath the water’s surface while others are anchored to the ocean floor. Another technique is to push the waves through a narrow channel, where they power a turbine.

Waves have the highest energy density of renewable energy sources, compared to others like wind, solar, biomass and geothermal. This means waves have the greatest potential to be an important contributor to the world’s “energy mix resilience”, say researchers at the University of Plymouth.

The challenge is that wave energy is far behind in its development compared to other renewable energies.

Wave energy generation in the UK.
Annual mean wave power in areas of the UK. Image: ScienceDirect / University of Plymouth

How is wave energy being developed?

Many countries are developing ocean energy systems. Policies are being introduced to encourage this.

For example, in Australia, the government approved a national Offshore Electricity Infrastructure Bill in 2021. This provides a policy framework for building and operating offshore electricity projects.

In the European Union, islands are expected to play a key role in developing ocean energy technologies as part of an Offshore Renewable Energy Strategy.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

In the UK, wave energy was first developed in the 1970s and there are active wave energy projects in Scotland, England and Wales. Wave Energy Scotland, a national technology development body backed by the Scottish government, has invested more than $52 million (£40 million) in almost 100 projects since it was set up in 2014.

In Sweden, wave energy company CorPower Ocean says it has built the world’s largest wave energy test rig at its base in Stockholm.

Lots of niche applications for wave energy are helping to pave the way for larger utility-scale projects. These include using wave energy to power oil and gas platforms, marine farming, remote islands, naval bases, oceanography services and luxury resorts.

Can wave energy fix the power crisis?

Fossil fuel shortages are heightening the need for renewable alternatives like wave energy.

A combination of factors is pushing prices for oil, gas and coal higher, leading to a global energy crisis. The world’s recovery from COVID-19 has fuelled demand for energy, but supplies have faltered. Lower coal production in China, low investment in oil production in the US and declining gas production in Europe are among the causes. There have also been global transport bottlenecks.

Now the conflict in Ukraine is pushing oil prices to new highs over supply disruption fears.

Against this backdrop, the reliability of wave energy is a big attraction. While wind and solar energy are unpredictable, waves are reliably frequent and harbour more energy than other renewables.

But while the potential is there for wave energy to solve the energy crisis, there are inevitably hurdles along the way.

Ocean power generation in the NetZero scenario, 2000-2030.
Ocean power generation needs to grow 33% a year to achieve net zero by 2050. Image: IEA

Does wave energy have drawbacks?

There are undoubtedly challenges to harnessing this renewable energy. Building and operating wave energy plants is generally expensive.

Cables, turbines and other infrastructure could potentially harm marine life.

And because the plants rely on coastal locations, they may not be able to support whole populations.

Ocean power is not currently on track to play its part in helping the world reach carbon neutrality by 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says in its Ocean Power tracking report.

To achieve this goal, ocean power generation needs to grow an average of 33% a year between 2020 and 2030.

“Marine technologies hold great potential, but additional policy support for energy research, development and demonstration is needed,” the IEA says.

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