How CalWave Is Reducing The Cost Of Wave Power Harvesting

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Harnessing the energy of waves is approaching affordability. (Image: Unsplash)
Harnessing the energy of waves is approaching affordability. (Image: Unsplash)

After last week’s discussion of what wave power is and why it is important to the renewable energy ecosystem and the green transition, I got the opportunity to chat with Marcus Lehmann, CEO and Co-Founder of CalWave, about he and his team plan seek to change the tides of the Blue Economy.

Why Wave Power?

“Wave power is the third largest renewable resource after wind and solar in the US. We can provide power at night in the wintertime where other renewables can’t, and so far it is completely underutilized. The Department of Energy recently published a study of an updated resource assessment and found that wave power can provide up to 30% of the 2019 energy consumption in the US. That is the technical potential no just the theoretical, so it’s already been reduced to what can be practically used.”

Wave power hasn’t received the same attention or growth until recently. “Unlike wind and solar projects, wave energy collectors and other ocean technologies are unable to be iteratively grown for several reasons. The cost to test wave technology is too high to do rapid iterations and experiments on the technology. Additionally, without many facilities to field test large-scale prototypes, it becomes extremely difficult to find a place to collect the proper data.”

Why Now?

“It takes time for these technologies to grow. It takes a village to get these technologies to make a substantial contribution like 5-10% of total electricity consumption. If we want these scale by 2035, we really need to double down on the progress we have made. The next step to get these technologies to mature to utility-scale. PacWave is the first grid-connected wave farm that can be used as a development case by project developers to be replicated in the long run.”

“Permitting has been a prohibitive issue that has restricted wave testing. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) wanted to build a wave testing, the Central Coast WaveConnect Project, but ultimately abandoned the project in 2011 due to permitting risks. With PacWave having secured pre-approved permits, significant impediments have been resolved for future wave tests, including CalWave’s.”

Ocean-based solutions have an enormous unused potential for mitigating climate change. While the Ocean Based Climate Solutions Act was introduced but never voted on, it does show that a changing political agenda is more focused on climate change, as is evident in the Biden administration. Ocean-based energy solutions include wave and tidal power, as well as non-energy related technology like aquaculture and algae-based products.

How does CalWave differ from other wave capture devices from the past and present?

“CalWave’s technology operates fully submerged. This allows our product to be closer to the shore and is less of an issue for people who are concerned about the individual impact of seeing a system floating in their waters.”

“We have approached wave energy from a system engineering perspective. Wave energy devices are no different than wind turbines. It’s a infrastructure that project that captures a renewable resource to product electricity. At the highest level, the functions to make a project worthwhile are the product needs to be technically efficient and capital efficient. To be technically efficient, we must be able to use the most of a resource to produce the greatest amount of electricity. For us, capital efficiency means that the system must be able to shut down autonomously. By having this autonomous function, the cost of removing or sheltering the system from storms and significant weather events is nullified. This is what was often lacking in the first generation of wave energy devices.”

“Therefore, by incorporating three key mechanisms into our technology lowering capital costs and removing key obstacles from play in weather events, we have made an efficient system without overdesigning it so that it does not become prohibitively expensive. “

What are the biggest challenges to ocean and wave technology and what needs to be done to overcome them?

“The biggest challenge to ocean and wave technology is to build up confidence in the performance and reliability of the technology that can only be achieved through field testing and real-world data. We have our first open ocean pilot at Scripps in San Diego and we have received funding from the Department of Energy (DoE) to prepare for PacWave when the South Site officially opens for testing.”

“Even with securing trust and confidence in the technology, the key to scaling rests in project financing. To achieve project financing, the project must be bankable and will need several insurances to counterbalance the inherent risks of deploying new energy technology. This is still an unknown path, as there is no guidance or precedence to know how many hours of how much data is required for a project to become bankable. For comparison, wind energy required there to be enough turbines in the field. From there, gradual process was made to get to where both onshore and offshore wind are today.”

“It is important to note that to accelerate the growth of wave energy, certain steps on the process cannot be skipped. This includes having field tests experience as many weather events as possible, including severe events that only occur in the winter. Therefore, the minimum testing period of any product in this sector is a year to capture all aspects of every season. Fortunately for CalWave, there is commercial interest, but that testing is pivotal to getting their product to market.”

Who Seeks to Directly Benefit from Wave Technology?

“We really see our short-term impact being in small island development states. They still heavily rely on diesel imports and represent 11% of the global population yet diesel has emissions as high as coal in terms of CO2/kWh. Their space is constrained and even with wind and solar ,hurricanes are a constraint there as well. Tourism is one of their biggest industries so having a renewable resource that works completely underwater and doesn’t take up space while providing power close to baseload is a great opportunity for these communities.”

What is the future of wave energy?

“Wave energy can greatly benefit the integration and efficiency of offshore wind. With more cables going into the grid, wave power can upgrade wind farms by providing an additional source of power during excess demand, or provide power when the wind is not blowing. This co-location of wind and wave resources increases the overall efficiency of renewable production, creating a more reliable generation system.”

About The Author

Matthew Morris Impact

Matthew Morris

Impact Investment Fellow

Matt is an Impact Investment Fellow with Vectors Angels as a part of the organization’s sustainability team. While most disciplined in power generation and energy storage, Matt takes on a wide array of technologies in the sector.

Leveraging these skills, Matt works with early-stage startups on fundraising and go-to-market strategies, understanding their market, and competitor due diligence.

Matt holds a BS in Finance and Economics from Boston College and an MEng from Boston University in Materials Science & Engineering. Matt’s graduate research and passion focused on the impact fundraising mechanisms and financial institutions have on the success of startups in the renewable energy and cleantech industries. His current interests involve developing new financial instruments to fund demo and pilot “tough tech” projects and closing the commercialization gap.

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