US researchers present methodology for ‘more accurate’ wave energy resource assessment

Researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have developed a more comprehensive and accurate methodology to measure the wave energy available in ocean sites around the world.

Levi Kilcher, a senior researcher at NREL and the lead author of the new study (Courtesy of NREL/Photo by Taylor Mankle)

In a recent study published in Renewable Energy, which was funded by the US Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office, NREL and PNNL team of scientists presented a new method to estimate total wave energy potential, as the existing wave energy data sets were found to not as as reliable as previously thought.

Namely, previous methodologies did not account for wave direction – which direction a wave rolls in from, unlike the newly developed one which also accounts for local waves as well.

According to NREL, the inconsistencies in data regarding wave energy resource assessment presents problem for developers, as providing conflicting estimates for how much energy their device could produce, will cause inconsistencies that could undermine trust in wave energy in general.

Without reliable data, countries might struggle to understand how wave energy can fit into their clean energy plans, NREL states.

However, the improved methodology can only offer a theoretical estimate of how much energy future devices might generate. But if the method becomes an industry standard, it could have a promising ripple effect. And more consistent data could help increase confidence in the industry, according to the researchers.

In addition, with more accurate, consistent data, technology developers can better compare their design to others and get a clearer picture of how much energy their device might produce in real ocean waves.

Levi Kilcher, a senior researcher at NREL and the lead author of the study, said: “Wave energy technology is at such an early stage. Because the industry is still young, it’s challenging to estimate how much energy future technologies might capture.

“The original wave resource assessment was a great first start. But there were also several critiques of that method.

“Our new method resolved many of the previous methodological critiques. The other neat thing is that our method works for all scales – from the very small, single-project scale all the way to the entire ocean basin.”

Next, the team plans to feed their method more accurate data sets so they can come up with a solid theoretical estimate – essentially, how much energy the United States could generate if it could extract all the energy available in its oceans.

With that, the team said it can move beyond hypotheticals and estimate the technical and practical wave energy resources – meaning, how much wave energy countries could realistically harness given constraints, including technological, economic, environmental, regulatory, and even geographic limitations.

“The practical resource is probably a small percentage of the theoretical resource. But because there is so much wave energy out there, it’s still an important resource,” Kilcher concluded.

Aside from Kilcher, who provided extensive background on what data the wave energy industry and policymakers need to build their tech and clean energy plans, the other study’s authors included Zhaoqing Yang, a chief scientist at the marine sciences laboratory of PNNL. Yang, along with his colleague Gabriel García Medina, designed the theoretical model used to measure wave energy resources.

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