The sun doesn’t always shine. The wind doesn’t always blow. The oceans, though, always move. Strong planetary windstorms create consistent great waves that swell over hundreds of miles to crash onto our coasts. Tidal rhythms mix the flows and currents to set forth the turbulent energy of our seas. The ocean’s enormous power is the greatest untapped resource for generated electricity today.
The problem is how to harness such power. Ever since the first wave generator was invented in 1799, mechanical engineers have faced the task of transforming such an idea into workable applications. Materials used to capture sea movements would degrade rather quickly. Early generator structures would be pounded by the ocean waves, day after day. The seasonal storms would bend and twist these early experiments into useless debris. Plant and animal life would interrupt or damage the inner workings of the early models. The cost effectiveness to maintain ocean wave generators would lead to eventual failure.
In 1907, the construction of The Starr Wave Motor of Redondo Beach began. It was supposed to supply power to six Southern California counties. Two years later, the pier that supported the huge machine collapsed due to poor construction. An even earlier attempt, The Wright Wave Motor of Manhattan Beach, circa 1897, is still buried under the sand at the foot of the present pier in Manhattan Beach. Many Southern Californian beach communities experimented with wave generators in the early 1900s. Eventually the cost, maintenance, and construction difficulties eroded interest in wave generators.
Ocean wave generators have come a long way since then. Ocean Power Delivery developed a tube-style wave generator called “Pelamis”. Pelamis is a long, hinged tube, about the length of five railroad cars. It uses the bobbing motion of the waves as it floats on top of the water to bend the hinges, which, in turn, activates hydraulic pumps that drive the generators.
Then there is “Limpet” (Land Installed Marine Powered Energy Transformer). Limpet is a shoreline energy converter located on the island of Islay, near Scotland. The Limpet 500 was installed in 2000 and produces power for the national grid. The waves enter the shell chamber, raising the water level. The increased water level compresses air inside the chamber, and as the water level recedes, the air decompresses. The compression and decompression moves the air to cause the Wells Turbine to move. The turbine moves the generator. The Limpet creates a capacity of 500 KW, enough to supply a third of the Island’s residence.
The “Anaconda” wave generator rides oncoming waves and uses the motion to drive a turbine in its tail. Its inventors, Francis Farley and Rod Rainey, say the tests of the wave generator are continuing to be successful.
Maybe it’s time for Southern California to look, again at the ocean wave generator as a means to produce power for our local grid. The advancement of technology has made harnessing the power of the ocean a workable solution to our energy needs. In the near future, we may find that the great California coastline will give us more than just great pleasure.
S. Blair Fox