“Wave power works when other renewables don’t, but energy companies have failed to harness this constant source of energy.”
For all their faults, there is an advantage to pulling or pumping things out of the ground and burning them that has kept fossil fuels (a iffily grandiose term for wrenching something out of the earth with varyingly high-tech levels of shovels) on top of the global energy market: come rain or shine, it does burn. Coal doesn’t not burn when it’s cloudy. Oil doesn’t not burn on a still day. Ubiquity, tradition, infrastructure and price all play second fiddle in the renewable energy debate to that inconvenient truth: come rain, shine, storm, day, night or ecological apocalypse: things always burn.
Inna Braverman, co-founder of Eco Wave Power, is proposing an alternative answer to the renewable reliability problem. Fixing a system of buoys (or ‘floaters’) and generators to existing marine structures – breakwaters, jetties and parts of disused wartime ports – rather than tethering multi-million dollar edifices to the ocean floor, not only are its modular wave-powered generators protecting the swimming or scurrying inhabitants of the seabed, but they also don’t stop. For as long as they can be dredged up, fossil fuels will always burn. But the world isn’t running out of waves.
“Wave energy is one of the [most] significant natural resources that our planet has,” Braverman says. “It doesn’t shut down at night or if there’s cloud cover, like solar; or if there’s pollution like in China which blocks the sun. With wave energy you have some quiet days and some stormy days, but you still have a higher average availability of the resource and higher production.”
Wave energy – as a concept – is nothing new. Energy giants explored the ocean as the ‘next big thing’ decades ago. But the logic of oil, gas and coal prospectors – go to the place with the most of it, then dig it out – doesn’t work in oceans with waves high enough to potentially topple an aircraft carrier.
“Wave energy [has historically] struggled to be commercialized,” Braverman says. “99% of the competitors in the wave energy market decided to go offshore. Offshore means four or five kilometres into the sea, which means the technology needs to be moored to the ocean floor, which is very expensive. You need ships and divers for installation and maintenance, there’s no way to avoid storms because – again – it’s connected to the ocean floor.
“That made the big energy companies scared. Ten or fifteen years ago, big companies did invest in offshore wave energy technology, and the result in terms of investment was not so good. First of all, the prices were very high: prices of very small devices reached about $100-150 million [and] could provide electricity for 20-100 households – which was crazy. [Then there was] the problem of liability, because [when] storms came with high waves – as high as 20 metres, which can destroy anything that mankind can build – they lost money. No insurance company would insure such technology… It’s in the middle of nowhere; it’s just some coordinates on a map. It scared them.”
In 2011, Eco Wave Power had that legacy of negative connotations to scrub off. Wave power was expensive, inefficient and vulnerable to breakdown. Braverman’s modular system of buoys had to be demonstrably the opposite. And so they are: without the need for expensive maintenance, after installation they can be largely left alone, quietly feeding energy into the electrical grid while bobbing up and down unobtrusively out of sight in some forgotten cove. And should dangerously blustery weather roll in, the buoys can either be submerged or lifted out of the water altogether, ready to be redeployed when things calm down.
“Everybody was terribly afraid that it was going to break,” she says. “It’s not just the loss of money: [broken technology] is very embarrassing for the big companies… That’s why we decided [to stay] near-shore and build [primarily] on existing structures like man-made breakwaters. Then we can lift the floaters or submerge them underwater during a storm, so there’s no harm caused. We chose to put [most] of our system on-land – like a power station – so that the only parts that are in the water are the floaters and the hydraulic cylinders… And by lowering the prices and raising the reliability, we were able to get insurance.”
And after a grand reveal in Gibraltar, where a fully functional system and proof-of-concept bobs away straddling a World War II ammunition jetty, Braveman’s team is turning its eyes to large-scale, global deployment. It’s next targets? China, then the world.
“In China, they wanted our system because they have 18,000 kilometres of coastline and more than 6,500 islands,” she says. “It’s difficult to give a [potential marketshare] percentage for the whole world, because exactly like solar and exactly like wind, it depends on the availability of the resource in each country. Some countries have much more sun but don’t have any waves, and some countries have wind but don’t have sun… It’s a combination. In Chile, for example, or in Scotland or Australia – countries which are very open to the sea – they could [get] 80 or 90% of their energy from wave energy.”
But if pressed on how much of tomorrow’s energy wave might account for, Braverman’s answer blows competitors out of the water: in a future of renewable energies, wave power could provide up to 50% of what humanity consumes – an energies future that, near-literally, walks on water.