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January 11, 2019

Is ocean wave power the next big thing in renewable energy?

The concept of wave energy isn’t new. Wave energy is one of the most significant natural resources on the planet. Waves never cease. Unlike solar energy, waves don’t stop just because it’s too dark or there’s cloud cover. There are a growing number of advances in marine energy, which has lagged behind solar and wind renewable power sources due to the harsh ocean environment and technical challenges.

In the past, businesses have struggled to commercialize wave energy, due to cost, efficiency issues and vulnerability to storms. And there was an issue of liability. Some storms bring in very high waves – as much as 25 to 30 feet high – or higher – which threatens to damage energy-harvesting equipment.

New technology is changing the way wave energy is collected. One promising new system designs buoys that do not need expensive maintenance and can be left alone, quietly feeding energy into the electrical grid while bobbing up and down unobtrusively out of sight. And, when stormy weather gets too blustery, the buoys can be either submerged or taken out of the water.

The majority of the new system operates on land so the only parts in the water are the floaters and their hydraulic cylinders. The power station is built close to shore and mostly on existing structures like jetties or man-made breakwaters. This allows operators to lift the buoys or submerge them during a storm, keeping the system intact. This design is more attractive to insurers, because there is a lower chance of damaged equipment.

Other innovative wave energy systems include the use of a submerged tidal turbine that uses seabed-mounted turbines. Another wave energy conversion device extracts power from the vertical and horizontal movement of the waves using high-pressure hydraulics.

The promise of wave energy is focused on the potential power and reliability of wave motion. It can generate electricity 24/7, making it easier to integrate into the grid than either solar or wind power. However, there are still major concerns about how tidal and wave energy devices may impact marine ecosystems. Even though today’s systems are designed to shut down if a marine animal approaches the device, environmental scientists are still studying the effects of wave energy collection systems on ocean environments and inhabitants.

Many other ways of capturing wave energy are being developed. These methods include bending waves into a narrow channel to increase their size and power to turn the turbines. Another method is to channel the waves in into a reservoir that generates electricity similar to the way a hydropower dam operates. Most other methods in development involve placing devices on or just below the surface of the water and anchoring the device to the ocean floor.

In the future, it is expected that the potential of ocean wave energy could generate as much as 2.64 trillion kilowatts per year, equivalent to 66% of the electricity generated in the U.S. in 2017. However, it may take a decade or longer to develop wave energy systems that are safe for the environment and are efficient. Wave energy is a promising renewable energy resource that could replace a portion of the fossil fuels we currently consume.

Today’s environmental risks can have far-reaching environmental impacts. In response, Marsh & McLennan Agency (MMA) can develop a unique approach to help your organization better understand and manage these risks.

Contact MMA to learn more about innovative risk management strategies.