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Ocean power surges forward

Wave power and tidal power are still experimental, but may be little more than five years away from commercial development.

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Wave and tidal-current energy are today at about the same stage as land-based wind power was in the early 1980s, he says, but with "a lot more development just waiting to see that first commercial success."

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More than 50 companies worldwide and 17 US-based companies are now developing ocean power prototypes, an EPRI survey shows. As of last fall, FERC tallied 34 tidal-power and nine wave-power permits with another 20 tidal-current, four wave-energy, and three ocean-current applications pending.

Some of those permits are held by Christopher Sauer's company, Ocean Renewable Power of Portland, Maine, which expects to deploy an underwater tidal-current generator in a channel near Eastport, Maine, later this year.

After testing a prototype since December 2007, Mr. Sauer is now ready to deploy a far more powerful series of turbines using "foils" – not unlike an airplane propeller – to efficiently convert water current that's around six knots into as much as 100,000 watts of power. To do that requires a series of "stacked" turbines totaling 52 feet wide by 14 feet high.

"This is definitely not a tinkertoy," Sauer says.

Tidal energy, as demonstrated by Verdant Power's efforts in New York City's East River, could one day provide the US with 3,000 megawatts of power, EPRI says. Yet a limited number of appropriate sites with fast current means that wave- and offshore-wind power have the largest potential.

"Wave-power technology is still very much in emerging pre-commercial stage," says Roger Bedard, ocean technology leader for EPRI. "But what we're seeing with the PG&E WaveConnect is an important project that could have a significant impact."

Funding is a problem. As with most renewable power, financing for ocean power has been becalmed by the nation's financial crisis. Some 17 Wall Street finance companies that had funded renewables, including ocean power, are now down to about seven, says John Miller, director of the Marine Renewable Energy Center at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

Even so, entrepreneurs like Sauer aren't close to giving up – and even believe that the funding tide may have turned. Private equity and the state of Maine provided funding at a critical time, he says.

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