Of all the energy sources available on planet Earth, ocean waves are arguably the most under-utilized.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, the theoretical annual energy potential of waves off the coasts of the United States alone is estimated to be as much as 2.64 trillion kilowatthours. That’s roughly equivalent to 64 percent of the country’s total electricity generation in 2018 — and it’s all from just a tiny fraction of the waves sloshing around in the ocean.
But there’s a reason that wave power projects aren’t as numerous as those for solar or wind: the ocean is a notoriously difficult place for equipment to survive. Over time, salty, turbulent seas will corrode and break down just about anything you put in them, so it’s difficult to build power generation systems that can survive for more than a few years at a time.
That’s where Ocean Energy comes in. The company has spent the better part of the past decade perfecting a wave power generator that’s not only tough enough to survive the seas, but also capable of capturing huge amounts of energy from them. The result? A hulking, 826-ton marvel of modern engineering known as the OE Buoy. Thanks to its groundbreaking design, this steel leviathan can generate enough power to supply a small town all by itself.
If you’re curious about how it generates all that energy, here’s the scoop: “The OE Buoy is designed around the science of an oscillating water column.” Ocean Energy explains. “The buoy is shaped like an ‘L’ with a long open chamber that sits below the water line, and a turbine above the water. As water enters the open chamber it forces air upward, which turns the turbine, generating electricity.”
But that’s just half of the story. The buoy is capable of generating energy not only when waves crash into it, but also when they bounce back, thanks to a component known as a Wells turbine. “When the water recedes,” says OE, “it creates a vacuum and air rushes in to fill it, keeping the turbine spinning, and the cycle repeats.” Amazingly, this turbine is the only moving part on the whole rig, so the machine has very few points of potential failure. “The beauty of the OE design is its simplicity. Having only a single moving part substantially increases its reliability in the often hostile ocean environment.”
The buoy is currently being towed across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii, where it’ll live for the next year and undergo testing. “Initially, the device will be tested at the US Navy Wave Energy Test Site (WETS) in Kanehoe Bay, Hawaii for 12 months.” the company explains. “Ocean Energy’s long-term plan is to build five units for deployment at the Oregon Wave Energy Test Site off the coast of Newport Oregon.”