Ocean Wave Generators for Southern California

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


  1. in_awe says

    I have looked at installing solar panels on my roof, and to my disappointment have not found a financial breakeven point of less than the expected life of the panels. And that is with tax credits but without taking into account the time value of money. We are still waiting for a breakthrough in the materials science to give us cost effective solar energy.

    I an intrigued by the idea of ocean wave energy production. Putting up a large array of generators would allow some to be taken off line for cleaning out marine growth without affecting the baseline energy output. Seems like a better bet than wind turbines…

    • Timeparticle says

      Agreed, in_awe, there is always ocean movements to move wave generators, but not always wind. An array of different, efficient wave generators would be an effective way to keep energy output flowing, while maintaining and cleaning a few at a time.

  2. BillG says

    If everyone had solar panels put on when they re-roofed and stored the excess for night use and making hydrogen, we could go a long way to reduce the need for other electricity generators.

    • S. Blair Fox says

      Yes BillG, solar panel technology is improving, everyday. They are finding that utilizing more advanced microcircuit technology within the solar panels increase the efficiency of the energy conversion. Though, with the recession in full swing, it may be a while before a large percentage of Californians have the means to pay for solar panels, even with government rebates.

      There is a large problem with Hydrogen Tech. for renewed energy. The amount of voltage necessary to separate the Hydrogen atom from water molecules through electrolysis is not efficient. In other words, it takes too much electricity to create a liter of Hydrogen. It is much more efficient to just use that same amount of electricity directly, for energy usage. They are still working on the problem.

      With new wave technology developing, we can use offshore generators along with the other renewable energy forms for increase power to our local grid.

  3. says

    The key to a cost effective wave generator is size and smart variable architecture. How about a field of big metal wings on hinges that can be lowered flat during storms and then put vertical at the right moment to catch waves and use the power to turn dynamos with appropriate gearing? It’s all a matter of economics, a classical engineering problem. If the backing is there I think it can be made to work.

    • S. Blair Fox says

      Agreed, TL. There are models of your idea already being tested. They look like wind generators, as the large blades turn in submerged water and spin from the water currents. I would think that keeping them clean from seaweed would be a daily ritual. San Francisco is working on a wave generator experiment right now. I hope it goes well.


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