Energy Sources from Oceans
An Introduction

Generating technologies for deriving electrical power from the ocean include tidal power, wave power, ocean thermal energy conversion, ocean currents, ocean winds and salinity gradients. Of these, the three most well-developed technologies are tidal power, wave power and ocean thermal energy conversion. Tidal power requires large tidal differences which, in the U.S., occur only in Maine and Alaska. Ocean thermal energy conversion is limited to tropical regions, such as Hawaii, and to a portion of the Atlantic coast. Wave energy has a more general application, with potential along the California coast. The western coastline has the highest wave potential in the U.S.; in California, the greatest potential is along the northern coast.

Wave energy conversion takes advantage of the ocean waves caused primarily by interaction of winds with the ocean surface. Wave energy is an irregular and oscillating low-frequency energy source that must be converted to a 60-Hertz frequency before it can be added to the electric utility grid.

Although many wave energy devices have been invented, only a small proportion have been tested and evaluated. Furthermore, only a few have been tested at sea, in ocean waves, rather than in artificial wave tanks.

As of the mid-1990s, there were more than 12 generic types of wave energy systems. Some systems extract energy from surface waves. Others extract energy from pressure fluctuations below the water surface or from the full wave. Some systems are fixed in position and let waves pass by them, while others follow the waves and move with them. Some systems concentrate and focus waves, which increases their height and their potential for conversion to electrical energy.

A wave energy converter may be placed in the ocean in various possible situations and locations. It may be floating or submerged completely in the sea offshore or it may be located on the shore or on the sea bed in relatively shallow water. A converter on the sea bed may be completely submerged, it may extend above the sea surface, or it may be a converter system placed on an offshore platform. Apart from wave-powered navigation buoys, however, most of the prototypes have been placed at or near the shore.

The visual impact of a wave energy conversion facility depends on the type of device as well as its distance from shore. In general, a floating buoy system or an offshore platform placed many kilometers from land is not likely to have much visual impact (nor will a submerged system). Onshore facilities and offshore platforms in shallow water could, however, change the visual landscape from one of natural scenery to industrial.

The incidence of wave power at deep ocean sites is three to eight times the wave power at adjacent coastal sites. The cost, however, of electricity transmission from deep ocean sites is prohibitively high. Wave power densities in California's coastal waters are sufficient to produce between seven and 17 megawatts (MW) per mile of coastline.

As of 1995, 685 kilowatts (kW) of grid-connected wave generating capacity is operating worldwide. This capacity comes from eight demonstration plants ranging in size from 350 kW to 20 kW. None of these plants are located in California, although economic feasibility studies have been performed for a 30 MW wave converter to be located at Half Moon Bay. Additional smaller projects have been discussed at Fort Bragg, San Francisco and Avila Beach. There are currently no firm plans to deploy any of these projects.

As of the mid-1990s, wave energy conversion was not commercially available in the United States. The technology was in the early stages of development and was not expected to be available within the near future due to limited research and lack of federal funding. Research and development efforts are being sponsored by government agencies in Europe and Scandinavia.

Many research and development goals remain to be accomplished, including cost reduction, efficiency and reliability improvements, identification of suitable sites in California, interconnection with the utility grid, better understanding of the impacts of the technology on marine life and the shoreline. Also essential is a demonstration of the ability of the equipment to survive the salinity and pressure environments of the ocean as well as weather effects over the life of the facility.

Permitting Issues. Some of the issues that may be associated with permitting an ocean wave energy conversion facility include:

  • Disturbance or destruction of marine life (including changes in the distribution and types of marine life near the shore)
  • Possible threat to navigation from collisions due to the low profile of the wave energy devices above the water, making them undetectable either by direct sighting or by radar. Also possible is the interference of mooring and anchorage lines with commercial and sport-fishing.
  • Degradation of scenic ocean front views from wave energy devices located near or on the shore, and from onshore overhead electric transmission lines
The total power of waves breaking on the world's coastlines is estimated at 2 to 3 million megawatts. In favorable locations, wave energy density can average 65 megawatts per mile of coastline.

Wave energy

Wave energy is an irregular and oscillating low-frequency energy source that can be converted to a 60-Hertz frequency and can then be added to the electric utility grid. The energy in waves comes from the movement of the ocean and the changing heights and speed of the swells. Kinetic energy, the energy of motion, in waves is tremendous.

The total power of waves breaking on the world's coastlines is estimated at 2 to 3 million megawatts. An average 4-foot, 10-second wave striking a coast puts out more than 35,000 horsepower (this converts to a wave energy density of about 65 megawatts) per mile of coast. Three approaches to capturing wave energy are:

Floats or Pitching Devices These devices generate electricity from the bobbing or pitching action of a floating object. The object can be mounted to a floating raft or to a device fixed on the ocean floor.

Oscillating Water Columns (OWC) These devices generate electricity from the wave-driven rise and fall of water in a cylindrical shaft. The rising and falling water column drives air into and out of the top of the shaft, powering an air-driven turbine.

Wave Surge or Focusing Devices These shoreline devices, also called "tapered channel" or "tapchan" systems, rely on a shore-mounted structure to channel and concentrate the waves, driving them into an elevated reservoir. Water flow out of this reservoir is used to generate electricity, using standard hydropower technologies.



Tidal energy traditionally involves erecting a dam across the opening to a tidal basin. The dam includes a sluice that is opened to allow the tide to flow into the basin; the sluice is then closed, and as the sea level drops, traditional hydropower technologies can be used to generate electricity

Tidal energy

Tidal energy traditionally involves erecting a dam across the opening to a tidal basin. The dam includes a sluice that is opened to allow the tide to flow into the basin; the sluice is then closed, and as the sea level drops, traditional hydropower technologies can be used to generate electricity from the elevated water in the basin. Some researchers are also trying to extract energy directly from tidal flow streams.

Tidal energy can be exploited in two ways: (1) By building semi-permeable barrages across estuaries with a high tidal range. and (2) By harnessing offshore tidal streams. Barrages allow tidal waters to fill an estuary via sluices and to empty through turbines. Tidal streams can be harnessed using offshore underwater devices similar to wind turbines.

The energy potential of tidal basins is large the largest facility, the La Rance station in France, generates 240 megawatts of power.

Tidal power is non-polluting, reliable and predictable.Tidal barrages, undersea tidal turbines - like wind turbines but driven by the sea - and a variety of machines harnessing undersea currents are under development. Unlike wind and waves, tidal currents are entirely predictable. But tidal energy systems can have environmental impacts on tidal basins because of reduced tidal flow and silt buildup.



T great amount of thermal energy (heat) is stored in the world's oceans. Each day, the oceans absorb enough heat from the sun to equal the thermal energy contained in 250 billion barrels of oil.

Thermal energy

A great amount of thermal energy (heat) is stored in the world's oceans. Each day, the oceans absorb enough heat from the sun to equal the thermal energy contained in 250 billion barrels of oil. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion Systems (OTEC) systems convert this thermal energy into electricity often while producing desalinated water.

Three types of OTEC systems can be used to generate electricity:

Closed-cycle plants circulate a working fluid in a closed system, heating it with warm seawater, flashing it to vapor, routing the vapor through a turbine, and then condensing it with cold seawater.

Open-cycle plants flash the warm seawater to steam and route the steam through a turbine.

Hybrid plants flash the warm seawater to steam and use that steam to vaporize a working fluid in a closed system.

OTEC systems are also envisioned as being either land-based (or "inshore"), near-shore (mounted on the ocean shelf), or offshore (floating).




Source: Summarized from, "Energy Awareness Planning Guide II: Energy Facilities" California Energy Commission
Also see GDRC's Programme on Oceans, Coasts and Small Islands

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Contact: Hari Srinivas - hsrinivas@gdrc.org