Climate

New Jersey could become an ocean energy hub

A first-in-the-nation bill would support wave and tidal energy as a way to meet the Garden State's climate goals.

An ocean wave.

Technological challenges mean wave and tidal power remain generally more expensive than their other renewable counterparts. But government support could help spur more innovation that brings down cost.

Photo: Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash

Move over, solar and wind. There’s a new kid on the renewable energy block: waves and tides.

Harnessing the ocean’s power is still in its early stages, but the industry is poised for a big legislative boost, with the potential for real investment down the line.

A New Jersey bill introduced this week would make the state the first in the U.S. to throw government support behind ocean energy. It would direct the state’s utility board to both initiate a study of generating power from waves and tides (they’re different, but more on that in a second), and simultaneously support ocean energy pilot projects. The bill isn’t just focused on studies and pilots, though; it calls for the board to produce a plan for deploying these technologies and potentially offering financial incentives as well.

The bill doesn’t provide funds for the fledgling technology at this point, but the state’s 2023 budget — signed into law Thursday — includes $500,000 dedicated to a feasibility study and pilot program for ocean-based energy, opening the door for New Jersey to continue to ride the wave energy … wave.

With the legislation, “New Jersey serves as a model to all states seeking to bring new forms of renewable energy into the future,” said Democrat Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak, who introduced the bill. The state has set a 2050 net zero goal, and Karabinchak said that wave and tidal energy could help make progress toward that North Star.

There’s a subtle difference between tidal and wave energy. In broad strokes, the former uses the push and pull of the tides themselves to push a paddle or spin a turbine and convert its flow into electricity, while wave energy relies upon the thrust of often-unpredictable surface waves to do so.

According to the Energy Information Administration, waves off the coast of the country are churning out 2.64 trillion kilowatt hours of untapped energy. That’s equivalent to 66% of U.S. electricity generation in 2020.

Wave energy has been around as a concept since 1799, when Pierre-Simon Girard filed a patent in his native France for using the waves “like motors” for simple machines like pumps. Modern wave energy converter technology, however, didn’t see its debut until the 1940s, when Japanese navy commander Yoshio Masuda created a wave-fueled navigation buoy that was ultimately sold commercially in the 1960s. Yet despite early work and the promise of abundant energy, the ocean presents challenges and surprises that have made it hard to tap.

“The problem is that these converters have to operate in very harsh environments,” said Muhammad Hajj, chair of the civil, environmental and ocean engineering department at the Stevens Institute. “You could design something to harness the energy of a 3-meter wave … but if the wave height becomes 8 meters, how will it respond?”

These technological challenges mean wave and tidal power remain generally more expensive than their other renewable counterparts. But government support could help spur more innovation that brings down costs.

The New Jersey legislation would provide a path to include the nascent ocean-based energy technologies in the state’s energy master plan, released once per decade. The 2019 installment pushed for the state to develop renewable technologies such as offshore wind, solar and storage, but made no mention of ocean power.

While the bill’s fate is anything but certain, the mere fact of its existence is encouraging to Inna Braverman, founder and CEO of Eco Wave Power. Her company has developed technology that converts wave power to electricity directly at breakwaters.

“I really believe that not only [will it] enable us to implement projects in New Jersey, which has amazing wave conditions, but also other states will follow,” she told Protocol.

Both Braverman and Hajj testified at a New Jersey Assembly committee hearing on the topic back in March, where Braverman characterized the response from both sides of the aisle as enthusiastic.

Various companies have tried to harvest energy from waves in recent years, but most have yet to succeed. That includes the high-profile failure of Ocean Power in 2014, which dealt with cost overruns and other challenges.That’s meant that waves have lagged behind both wind and the sun for generating electricity. Braverman attributes some of these to the fact that early efforts were far offshore.

“Not only is it expensive to install offshore, but … you get waves with a height of 20 meters. And no man-made stationary equipment can really withstand the load of a 20-meter wave height,” Braverman said. It became difficult to fund and insure these earlier projects, not to mention build the transmission lines to connect them to the grid.

In contrast, Eco Wave Power connects its technology to existing man-made structures — piers, breakwaters, jetties and other marine structures — in order to keep overall construction costs low and avoid the practical pitfalls of the open ocean. The company has two operational projects, one at the Port of Gibraltar and one in Israel, and several more in the pipeline.

Today, Eco Wave Power is focused primarily on the U.S. and European markets, Braverman said, which differ in large part because Europe already has regulations and legislation in place that enable the easy entrance of new wave projects while the U.S. does not — yet.

“We really need to introduce new renewable energy sources in order to really be able to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050,” she said. “And I truly believe that wave energy can be the solution for that. New Jersey is just the start.”

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