A $1.3 Million Bet On Marine Energy Is More Than It May Seem

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The relentless motion of ocean waves and tides is a tantalizing prize for clean power innovators on the prowl for a steady, infinite source of renewable energy to harvest day or night, regardless of the weather. The technology has yet to go mainstream, but a new $1.3 million funding pot for a group of marine energy projects in the US indicates that things are ready to pop.

The US could fulfill 60% of its electricity demand with wave energy alone, but there’s a catch. “But before the country (and the world) can tap into that well of power, we need a new fleet of technologies to harness those waves—affordably,” says the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

That thing about affordability piles one catch onto the other, but solutions have been emerging. The funding total of $1.3 million is focused on shepherding new marine energy devices through the crucial testing phase as efficiently as possible, including tidal energy devices as well as wave energy devices. If all goes according to plan, the funds will help to accelerate the timeline towards commercializing the technology.

The funds are coming from the TEAMER (Testing Expertise and Access for Marine Energy Research) program, supported by the US Department of Energy and the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust. The “Access” part of the acronym refers to the TEAMER network of A-list wave and tidal energy testing facilities located throughout the US.

“The TEAMER Facility Networks are representative of the top tier of marine energy testing and expertise facilities in the United States,” TEAMER says of itself.

Access to top notch, pre-certified facilities helps TEAMER participants save time and money they would otherwise spend scouting for an appropriate testing platform. The program also comes with guidance and support from US marine energy experts, helping participants to fine-tune their devices on the fly.

TEAMER also provides assurance that the testing protocols are consistent throughout the global industry. While all of the facilities are located in the US, innovators outside of the country are also eligible to apply to the program.

Marine Energy From An Urban River

The new funding pot, announced on January 9, is the latest in a series of funding rounds since TEAMER launched in 2019.

Some of the funding recipients have crossed the CleanTechnica radar before. That includes Verdant Power, which has been testing a series of tidal energy devices in the East River in New York City since 2002.

The choice of New York City as a proving ground for a marine energy device may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s not. Despite its name, the East River is actually a saltwater tidal waterway fed by the Atlantic Ocean, not a freshwater river fed by inland tributaries.

Verdant Power’s contribution to the marine energy field is an underwater turbine that resembles a short, squat wind turbine. One of Verdant’s key innovations is the use of plastics for the turbine blades. The assist from TEAMERS involves stress-testing an epoxy blade that sailed through the rough-and-tumble conditions of the East River with flying colors.

“Results will validate model predictions for extreme loads and confirm the design and manufacturing of these blades include a sufficient safety factor to ensure the 20-year lifetime, ” TEAMERS explains. “Lessons learned will enable cost reductions in the design and manufacturing by avoiding the over-design of future turbine blades.”

Underwater Kites And Flying Saucers To Harvest Clean Power

A totally different approach to tidal energy harvesting is illustrated by the nonprofit research organization SRI International, which briefly crossed the CleanTechnica radar back in 2020. We noted that the organization was working on “a kite-like system that leverages the pumping action that occurs when a kite is reeled in and payed out.”

SRI calls the device Manta, referring to the graceful movement of manta rays in water. “Manta will generate power using an underwater kite to capture the power of water currents, similar to an airborne kite that is lifted by the wind,” SRI explains. “Compared to systems that require rigidly anchored rotary turbines, Manta will provide a safe, environmentally and community-friendly power generation.”

SRI has been collaborating with the University of California, Berkeley, to fine-tune the device. The TEAMER award will enable them dig into the nitty-gritty of the kite’s movements in water.

“In this work, we will develop new models for understanding the behavior of kites as they travel through the water column, including piercing the surface,” SRI explains. “These models will be important to develop control systems and design features that help maintain stability and performance.”

Another unusual design approach is illustrated by the firm Carnegie Clean Energy. Its wave energy technology has undergone a series of changes since first launching in 2013, but one thing has been consistent throughout: It resembles an undersea flying saucer.

Carnegie’s TEAMER project is designed to assess the device under extreme conditions, with an eye on establishing standards for the industry. A successful wave energy convertor (WEC) design needs to produce significant power during operation conditions and survive in extreme conditions,” notes TEAMER.

A Marine Energy Device That Looks Like A Centipede

Yet another unusual marine energy design surfaced in the new round of funding, in the form of a wave energy converter from the company Centipod Wave Energy. As the name suggest, the device vaguely resembles an articulated creature such as a centipede.

“The concept behind the device can be described as a surface buoy connected to a positively buoyant backbone, which is anchored to the seabed with mooring lines,” TEAMER explains. “The surface buoy is excited by incoming waves creating relative motion between the buoy and the backbone. This piston motion drives a power take off system which converts the kinetic energy to electrical energy.”

Centipod will use a TEAMER facility to model how the device at scale and assess how it will perform under real-life conditions.

To wrap this up, it’s worth noting that the US has barely tapped into its offshore wind resources, let alone launching fleets of marine energy devices into coastal waters.  Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. Despite some setbacks last year, the US offshore wind industry is finally gathering some momentum. When it does, look for projects that piggyback new wave devices on offshore wind farms for a one-two renewable energy punch.

Follow me @tinamcasey on Bluesky, Threads, Post, and LinkedIn.

Image: New marine energy device converts the motion of waves into clean power (courtesy of Centipod Energy).

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