The ocean is a powerful force; its waves, driven by the wind, contain enormous energy potential. Until recently, however, scientists and engineers have been unable to crack the code on how to convert this potential energy into usable energy. Harnessing the power of ocean waves is difficult because the environment is entirely unforgiving—the brute force of the waves, combined with the corrosive properties of sea water, make it difficult to engineer a technology that can withstand the elements.

Despite these daunting obstacles, companies have persisted: the potential payoff is as desirable as the challenge is great. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that wave energy could generate as much as 1,170 terawatt-hours per year—equivalent to more than one quarter of all U.S. electricity consumption. These promising numbers led the DOE to host the Wave Energy Prize—an 18-month-long competition, open to the public, that gave competitors the opportunity to design and test their own wave-power-harnessing devices. According to the DOE, “the prize was designed to increase the diversity of organizations involved in Wave Energy Converter (WEC) technology development, while motivating and inspiring existing stakeholders.” Winners were promised $1.5 million, as well brand name recognition and the chance to test their invention at the Navy's famous Carderock MASK Basin test facility. By the time the entry deadline came around, 92 companies had registered.

After a year and a half of stiff competition, one group came out on top: AquaHarmonics, founded by two men, Alex Hagmuller and Max Ginsburg, who were college roommates at Oregon State University. Aqua Harmonics has a succinct mission statement—“Clean. Simple. Energy.” The founding of the company itself was a little more complex. In 2010, Hagmuller began working on small-scale wave energy prototypes out of his garage; when he realized what he was building had some serious potential, he enlisted Ginsburg to help with the software components of the project. The two men worked on their prototype as a side project for years, often flying long distances to meet and discuss changes. At the time, Hagmuller worked in Vancouver as a civil engineer, while Ginsburg was working as an electrical engineer on submarines for the Navy at Pearl Harbor.

By 2012, the partners had developed a prototype, and were ready to test it. Hagmuller recounts carrying the device across a Portland Beach: “We got strange looks from people and many questions were asked.” Ultimately, the two were able to get the device into the water, and watched as the LED light blinked to life—it was making power.

Of course, the next problem the team faced was funding; that’s when they heard about the Wave Energy Prize.

Part of what made the Wave Energy Prize so unique is that there could potentially have been no winner at all; in order to be eligible to win, the winning technology had to at least double the currently achievable “Average Climate Capture Width per Characteristic Capital Expenditure” (more commonly known as ACE), which, at the time, was 1.5 meters per million dollars. This new metric, developed specifically for the contest, tries to capture a technology's "effort to benefit" ratio (in effect its levelized cost of energy) without giving existing wave technologies an advantage. In total, four teams were able to double the existing ACE value. AquaHarmonics, however, went above and beyond – their generator showed a five-fold ACE improvement, demonstrating that wave energy truly did have the potential to be economically tapped.

During the course of the competition, the design for the AquaHarmonics system changed substantially. The winning device is a buoy attached to the seabed with a pre-tensioned cable. The cable is connected to a horizontal drum, and as the buoy is moved by the waves, the rotation of the drum relative to the buoy engages a generator, creating power. When the winners were asked what they planned to do with the reward, Hagmuller answered that they would, “use the prize money to further development with a larger scale prototype and testing in the ocean, with the device connected to the local grid.”

At a recent event hosted by the House and Senate Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Caucus, experts spoke about where they see wave power technology going in the future. Dr. Brian Polagye of the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center stressed that “natural markets” would play a key role in the commercialization of this technology. Rather than waiting for this technology to adapt itself to the current market, he suggested, we should be playing off the unique strengths of this energy source. Namely, Polagye believes that wave energy might best be suited to contribute to our offshore energy needs, including naval centers and underwater data centers.

It is clear that there is still much work to be done in the wave energy field. But advancements like those demonstrated by AquaHarmonics, and the widespread innovation sparked by the Wave Energy Prize, also make it clear that plenty of researchers and engineers are eager to get cracking.


Author: Emma Dietz