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Climate Connection: Wave Power

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Ocean waves contain very large amounts of energy. Consider a US Navy aircraft carrier sailing in open waters, weighing 100 million kg (approximately 100,230 tons). Deep-water waves are capable of lifting this enormous ship up and down repeatedly. Wave power technology attempts to capture this source of renewable energy and convert it into electricity to be used by homes and businesses. In general, this is accomplished by placing specially designed floating buoys in offshore waters with high-energy waves. The motion of the waves turns electric generators inside the buoys to convert the mechanical energy in waves into electrical energy (SF Fig. 4.11). This electricity can then be passed on to consumers on shore through underwater cables or stored in batteries within the buoy.


SF Fig. 4.11. Wave power generator buoys (A) PB150 PowerBuoy floating off the coast of Scotland, United Kingdom

Image courtesy of Ocean Power Technologies, Wikipedia Commons

SF Fig. 4.11. Wave power generator buoys (B) WaveRoller energy farm off Peniche, Portugal

Image courtesy of AW-Energy Oy, Wikipedia Commons


Commercial “wave farms” or “wave parks” have been developed off the coasts of the United Kingdom, Portugal, and Australia. In the United States, similar wave farms are in development off the coasts of Hawai‘i, California, Oregon, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts. Future development of commercial wave farms is expected to continue, particularly in regions of high wave energy (SF Fig. 4.12).


Image caption

SF Fig. 4.12. World map of potential wave energy measured in kilowatts per meter of wave crest

Image copyright and source

Image courtesy of Ingvald Straume, Wikimedia Commons


Current barriers to the development of wave power technology include concerns of environmental impacts, visual impacts, and economic feasibility. Some potential negative environmental impacts from wave farms could include interference in marine animal migration routes or small-scale seafloor disturbances from the placement of mooring anchors for buoys. Ongoing research and development of wave power technology continues to reduce operating costs and improve efficiency.

Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.