Riding the Wave Energy Towards a Renewable Future: A Dive into NREL’s Marine Energy Endeavors

In the vast expanses of our global coastlines, the ceaseless churn of ocean waves harbors a kind of power that has largely remained untapped. These natural juggernauts carry with them the potential to significantly contribute to our renewable energy arsenal. In the United States alone, the energy carried by ocean waves is estimated to be equivalent to nearly 60% of the nation’s annual electricity needs. However, to harness this colossal force, a new generation of technologies is required—ones that can effectively, and affordably, convert wave energy into electrical power.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a leader in renewable energy research, has embarked on a mission to accelerate the journey from concept to commercialization in wave energy. Through a collaborative effort involving a $24.9 million funding opportunity from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office, NREL’s marine energy team has lent its expertise to four promising projects. Each of these endeavors aims at improving the performance of wave energy converters, thereby bringing us a step closer to unlocking a future where the oceans could power our homes, industries, and much more.

The marine energy team at NREL has been at the forefront of innovation, guiding four distinct projects toward harnessing the immense power of ocean waves. Each project, with its unique design and approach, symbolizes a stride towards making wave energy a viable part of the renewable energy mix. Let’s navigate through these exciting ventures:

Image Source: Mocean Energy

1. The xWave: Harnessing Waves with a Californian Touch

In the realm of marine energy, standing out with a unique approach is the xWave project by CalWave Power Technologies Inc., stationed in Berkeley, California. This venture is part of an expansive endeavor to tap into the underutilized powerhouse of ocean waves. At the core of this project is the xWave device, meticulously prepared for its inaugural trial at the PacWave South test site. With a capability to generate about 45 kilowatts of energy, the xWave device holds the promise of powering close to 16 homes.

The hallmark of xWave lies in its ingenious design that grants it the ability to autonomously submerge below the ocean’s surface during turbulent weather conditions, particularly storms. This autonomous feature is pivotal in evading the wrath of potentially destructive waves, ensuring the durability and longevity of the device. Additionally, the xWave device can be remotely shut off by operators, further enhancing its safety profile.

But the innovation doesn’t stop at safety. The design of xWave is a testimony to practical and sustainable wave energy harnessing. Its trial at the PacWave South test site is not just a test of its performance, but a significant step toward understanding the practical challenges and solutions in the domain of wave energy conversion. The insights garnered from these trials, under the expert guidance of NREL’s marine energy team, are instrumental in refining the technology and inching closer to a renewable energy future where ocean waves play a pivotal role.

With the backing of the marine energy aficionados at NREL, the xWave project is not merely a demonstration of technical finesse, but a beacon of the tangible strides being made in making wave energy a reliable and accessible renewable energy source.

Image Source: Columbia Power Technologies

2. StingRAY: Powering Coastal Communities

Emerging from the innovative landscape of Charlottesville, Virginia, the StingRAY project by Columbia Power Technologies, often referred to as C-Power, envisions a future where coastal communities and isolated islands thrive on renewable wave energy. At the heart of this endeavor is the StingRAY device, a marvel engineered to generate about 50 kilowatts of energy, promising to be a reliable power source for such remote areas.

The brilliance of StingRAY lies in its enhanced design, making it more robust, reliable, and cost-effective compared to similar technologies. This design refinement is a product of rigorous testing and invaluable insights gained through collaborations with NREL and trials at the PacWave South test site. The data acquired is not merely a measure of its performance but a treasure trove of knowledge that propels the understanding of the real-sea operation of the device.

Moreover, the StingRAY project is not just about harnessing wave energy; it’s about doing it right. It aims to develop a larger prototype, leveraging the learnings from the tests to create a design that could serve remote villages and power grids alike, marking a significant stride towards making wave energy a mainstream renewable resource.

The journey of StingRAY, with the backing of NREL’s marine energy team, is the epitome of how collaborative innovation, coupled with a profound understanding of practical challenges, can lead the charge toward a sustainable and renewable energy future, where the oceans become a vital part of our energy ecosystem.

Image Source: IDOM

3. Floating Oscillating Water Column: A Spanish Wave Innovation

In the burgeoning field of marine energy, the Floating Oscillating Water Column project by IDOM Inc., based in Bilbao, Spain, stands as a testament to innovative engineering. This venture is an integral part of the global endeavor to unveil the untapped energy potential of ocean waves. Central to this project is a unique wave energy converter that employs an oscillating water column to capture and convert wave energy into electricity.

As waves ebb and flow into the device’s open chamber, they compel air through a turbine, generating electricity. The essence of this design is its simplicity coupled with effectiveness. IDOM Inc. is determined to evolve a cost-competitive version of this technology by incorporating advanced controls and redesigning the structure and turbine to amplify energy production. These enhancements are anticipated to not only boost the device’s energy production but also to propel the technology toward commercial viability.

The innovation encapsulated in the Floating Oscillating Water Column design extends beyond mere energy conversion. The initiative to refine and advance this technology reflects a broader vision of a cost-effective and reliable wave energy harnessing system. The trials and advancements of this project, under the adept guidance of NREL’s marine energy team, are pivotal in navigating the challenges and opportunities that lie in the path of wave energy conversion.

Backed by the expertise at NREL, the Floating Oscillating Water Column project illuminates the collaborative spirit and the technical prowess driving the evolution of wave energy technology. This project is not just a stride towards harnessing wave energy efficiently, but a leap towards a sustainable and renewable energy future where the boundless energy of ocean waves is harnessed to power our world.

Image Source: energy.gov

4. Floating Oscillating Surge Wave Energy Converter: Deep Dive with the Stevens Institute

In the progressive arena of marine energy, the Floating Oscillating Surge Wave Energy Converter (FOSWEC) project, spearheaded by the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, represents a pioneering venture aimed at unraveling the abundant energy potential harbored by ocean waves. This initiative is a fragment of the broader expedition to exploit the overlooked energy powerhouse that the ocean waves represent. Central to this project is the FOSWEC device, diligently prepped for its venture into real-world testing. With the capability to generate about 100 kilowatts of energy, the FOSWEC device showcases the potential to power approximately 35 homes.

The essence of FOSWEC lies in its novel design featuring a dual-flap system, a design cultivated to be deployed at any water depth. This dual-flap system is the bedrock of FOSWEC’s ability to convert wave energy into electrical power efficiently. Moreover, the advanced control system integrated within allows for maximized power production based on wave conditions, showcasing a harmonious blend of innovation and adaptability.

The innovation spectrum of FOSWEC extends beyond mere energy conversion. The design embodies a practical approach to sustainable wave energy harnessing. Its trials are not solely a testament to its performance but serve as a significant stride towards comprehending the practical challenges and solutions in the realm of wave energy conversion. The invaluable insights obtained from these trials, under the proficient mentorship of NREL’s marine energy team, are crucial in refining the technology, edging closer to a renewable energy future where ocean waves are a central player.

With the endorsement of the marine energy connoisseurs at NREL, the FOSWEC project is not merely a portrayal of technical elegance, but a beacon illuminating the tangible progress being made in rendering wave energy a reliable and accessible renewable energy resource.

The Journey Ahead: Open Ocean Trials

As the curtain rises on the next act of this marine energy endeavor, the focus shifts to the impending open ocean trials. These trials are the crucible where theoretical designs meet the tumultuous reality of the open sea, a pivotal phase that could either propel these projects toward commercialization or back to the drawing board.

Challenges and Solutions on the Horizon

The open sea is a testing ground where the mettle of wave energy converters is put to the sternest test. Below are some of the challenges that lie on the horizon and the solutions that are being crafted to navigate through them:

  • Durability:
    • Challenge: Ensuring the longevity of wave energy converters amidst harsh oceanic conditions.
    • Solution: Utilizing robust design principles and advanced materials to enhance durability.
  • Performance Optimization:
    • Challenge: Achieving optimal performance to ensure a reliable energy output.
    • Solution: Continuous performance monitoring and data analysis to inform design refinements.
  • Cost Competitiveness:
    • Challenge: Lowering the costs to a level competitive with other energy sources.
    • Solution: Innovations in design, materials, and manufacturing processes to reduce costs.
  • Technical Standards Compliance:
    • Challenge: Aligning with international standards to ensure safety and performance.
    • Solution: Engaging in rigorous testing and validation processes to meet technical standards.
  • Data Collection and Analysis:
    • Challenge: Gathering accurate data to inform design and operational improvements.
    • Solution: Employing advanced sensors and data analytics tools for insightful data collection and analysis.
  • Commercial Viability:
    • Challenge: Transitioning from prototype to commercially viable technology.
    • Solution: Leveraging insights from open ocean trials to refine designs and operational strategies, moving closer to commercial viability.

The journey towards harnessing wave energy is an iterative process, with each challenge encountered serving as a stepping stone towards devising robust solutions. The open ocean trials are a monumental stride in this journey, providing a real-world testing platform to validate and refine these burgeoning technologies.

The Road to Commercialization

The expedition from conceptualization to commercialization is a meticulous journey. Here are the phases and key focus areas along this road:

  • Prototype Testing:
    • Phase: Initial testing of wave energy converter prototypes.
    • Focus: Validating design assumptions and identifying areas of improvement.
  • Open Ocean Trials:
    • Phase: Extensive testing in real-sea conditions.
    • Focus: Performance validation and data collection for design refinement.
  • Technical Standards Compliance:
    • Phase: Ensuring alignment with international safety and performance standards.
    • Focus: Achieving certifications to build trust with stakeholders.
  • Cost Optimization:
    • Phase: Reducing production and operational costs.
    • Focus: Innovations in design, materials, and manufacturing to drive down costs.
  • Stakeholder Engagement:
    • Phase: Engaging with stakeholders including investors, regulators, and communities.
    • Focus: Building partnerships and securing investments for commercial deployment.
  • Commercial Deployment:
    • Phase: Launching commercially viable wave energy converters.
    • Focus: Establishing operational facilities and entering the energy market.
  • Market Expansion:
    • Phase: Expanding market presence and scale of operations.
    • Focus: Continuous improvement, customer engagement, and exploring new markets.

The roadmap to commercialization is paved with learnings from each phase, with the ultimate aim of integrating wave energy as a reliable and significant player in the renewable energy market.


The quest for harnessing wave energy, marked by the groundbreaking projects supported by NREL and other pioneering entities, signifies a tidal shift in the renewable energy landscape. The meticulous journey from theoretical designs to ocean-tested prototypes mirrors the broader paradigm shift towards a more diversified and sustainable energy ecosystem. As these innovative wave energy projects inch closer to commercialization, they herald the dawn of an era where the boundless, rhythmic energy of ocean waves becomes a reliable companion to solar and wind energies.

The synergies between these renewable resources could potentially redefine our energy infrastructure, edging us closer to a future less dependent on fossil fuels. The ripple effects of these advancements in wave energy technology are set to resonate through the energy sector, ushering in a wave of innovation and sustainability. The collaborative ethos embodied by NREL and its partners across these projects underscores the collective endeavor to navigate the uncharted waters of wave energy, driving us towards a horizon where the ocean’s energy is harnessed to power our lives sustainably. The convergence of technical prowess, collaborative spirit, and a shared vision for a cleaner energy future is what propels this tidal shift, marking a notable chapter in the ongoing narrative of renewable energy evolution.

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