Wave Energy using the Power of the Waves
Wave Energy also known as Ocean Wave Energy, is another type of ocean based renewable energy source that uses the power of the waves to generate electricity. Unlike tidal energy which uses the ebb and flow of the tides, wave energy uses the vertical movement of the surface water that produce tidal waves. Wave power converts the periodic up-and-down movement of the oceans waves into electricity by placing equipment on the surface of the oceans that captures the energy produced by the wave movement and converts this mechanical energy into electrical power.
Wave energy is actually a concentrated form of solar power generated by the action of the wind blowing across the surface of the oceans water which can then be used as a renewable source of energy. As the suns rays strike the Earth’s atmosphere, they warm it up. Differences in the temperature of the air masses around the globe causes the air to move from the hotter regions to the cooler regions, resulting in winds.
As the wind passes over the surface of the oceans, a portion of the winds kinetic energy is transferred to the water below, generating waves. In fact, the ocean could be viewed as a vast storage collector of energy transferred by the sun to the oceans, with the waves carrying the transferred kinetic energy across the surface of the oceans. Then we can say that waves are actually a form of energy and it is this energy and not water that moves along the ocean’s surface.
These waves can travel (or “propagate”) long distances across the open oceans with very little loss in energy, but as they approach the shoreline and the depth of the water becomes shallower, their speed slows down but they increase in size. Finally, the wave crashes onto the shoreline, releasing an enormous amount of kinetic energy which can be used for electricity production. A breaking waves energy potential varies from place to place depending upon its geographic location and time of year, but the two main factors which affect the size of the wave energy are the winds strength and the uninterrupted distance over the sea that the wind can blow.
Then we can say that “Wave Energy” is an indirect form of wind energy that causes movement of the water on the surface of the oceans and by capturing this energy the motion of the waves is converted to mechanical energy and used to drive an electricity generator. In many respects, the technology used for capturing this wave energy is similar to tidal energy or hydroelectric power.
The kinetic energy of the wave turns a turbine attached to a generator, which produces electricity. However, the open oceans can be a stormy and violent environment, resulting in the wave energy machines being destroyed by the very energy they were designed to capture.
In its simplest terms, an ocean wave is the up-and-down vertical movement of the sea water which varies sinusoidally with time. This sinusoidal wave has high points called crests and low points called troughs. The difference in height of a wave between the crest and the trough is called the peak-to-peak amplitude, then the waves amplitude or height is the centre of these two points and corresponds to the actual sea level when there is no movement of the water, in other words, a calm sea.
The amplitude of an ocean wave depends on the weather conditions at that time, as the amplitude of a smooth wave, or swell, will be small in calm weather but much larger in stormy weather with strong gales as the sea water moves up and down.
As well as the amplitude of the wave, another important characteristic is the distance between each successive crest, or trough, known as the wave period, ( T ). This wave period is the time in seconds between each crest of the wave. Then for a gentle swell this time period may be very long, but for a stormy sea this time period may be very short as each wave crashes onto the one in front.
The reciprocal of this time ( 1/T ) gives us the fundamental frequency of the ocean wave relative to some static point. Smaller periodic waves generated or superimposed onto this fundamental wave such as reflected waves are called harmonic waves. Then the frequency and amplitude characteristics of a wind-generated wave depend on the distance the wind blows over the open water (called the fetch), the length of time the wind blows, the speed of the wind and the water depth.
Waves transport energy from where they were created by storms far out in the ocean to a shoreline. But a typical ocean wave does not resemble a perfect sinusoid, they are more irregular and complex than a simple sinusoidal wave. Only the steady up-and-down movement of a heavy swell resembles a sinusoidal wave much more than the chaotic nature of locally generated wind waves, as real sea waves contain a mixture of waves with different frequencies, wave heights and directions.
Wave Power Devices
Ocean wave energy has many advantages over ocean wind energy in that it is more predictable, less variable and offers higher available energy densities. Depending on the distance between the energy conversion device and the shoreline, wave energy systems can be classified as being either Shoreline devices, Nearshore devices or Offshore devices. So what is the difference between these three types of energy extraction devices.
Shoreline devices are wave energy devices which are fixed to or embedded in the shoreline, that is they are both in and out of the water. Nearshore devices are characterised by being used to extract the wave power directly from the breaker zone and the waters immediately beyond the breaker zone, (i.e. at 20m water depth).
Offshore devices or deep water devices are the farthest out to sea and extend beyond the breaker lines utilising the high-energy densities and higher power wave profiles available in the deep water waves and surges.
One of the advantages of offshore devices is that there is no need for significant coastal earthworks, as there is with onshore devices.
As most of the energy within a wave is contained near the surface and falls off sharply with depth. There is a surprising range of designs available that maximise the energy available for capture. These wave energy devices are either fixed bottom standing designs used in shallow water and which pierce the waters surface, or fully floating devices that are used to capture the kinetic energy content of a waves movement and convert each movement into electricity using a generator.
There are currently four basic wave energy “capture” type methods:
- • Point Absorbers – these are small vertical devices either fixed directly to the ocean floor or tethered via a chain that absorb the waves energy from all directions. These devices generate electricity from the bobbing or pitching action of a floating device. Typical wave energy devices include, floating buoys, floating bags, ducks, and articulated rafts, etc. These devices convert the up-and-down pitching motion of the waves into rotary movements, or oscillatory movements in a variety of devices to generate electricity. One of the advantages of floating devices over fixed devices it that they can be deployed in deeper water, where the wave energy is greater.
- • Wave Attenuators – also known as “linear absorbers”, are long horizontal semi-submerged snake-like devices that are oriented parallel to the direction of the waves. A wave attenuator is composed of a series of cylindrical sections linked together by flexible hinged joints that allow these individual sections to rotate and yaw relative to each other. The wave-induced motion of the device is used to pressurise a hydraulic piston, called a ram, which forces high pressure oil through smoothing accumulators to turn a hydraulic turbine generator producing electricity. Then wave attenuators convert the oscillating movement of a wave into hydraulic pressure.
• Oscillating Water Column – is a partly submerged chamber fixed directly at the shoreline which converts wave energy into air pressure. The structure could be a natural cave with a blow hole or a man made chamber or duct with an wind turbine generator located at the top well above the waters surface. The structure is built perpendicular to the waves so that the ebbing and flowing motion of the waves force the trapped water inside the chamber to oscillate in the vertical direction.
As the waves enter and exit the chamber, the water column moves up and down and acts like a piston on the air above the surface of the water, pushing it back and forth. This air is compressed and decompressed by this movement and is channelled through a wind turbine generator to produce electricity. The speed of air in the duct can be enhanced by making the cross-sectional area of the duct much less than that of the column.
• Overtopping Devices – also known as “spill-over” devices, are either fixed or floating structures that use ramps and tapered sides positioned perpendicular to the waves. The sea waves are driven up the ramp and over the sides filling-up a small tidal reservoir which is located 2 to 3 metres above sea level. The potential energy of the water trapped inside the reservoir is then extracted by returning the water back to the sea through a low head Kaplan turbine generator to produce electricity.
Then overtopping devices convert the potential energy available in the head of water into mechanical energy. The disadvantage of onshore overtopping schemes is that they have a relatively low power output and are only suitable for sites where there is a deep water shoreline and a low tidal range of less than about a metre.
The idea of harnessing the tremendous power of the oceans waves is not new. Like other forms of hydro power, wave energy does not require the burning of fossil fuels, which can pollute the air, contributing to acid rain and global warming. The energy is entirely clean and endlessly renewable. Wave power has many advantages compared to other forms of renewable energy with its main advantage being that it is predictable.
However, like many other forms of renewable energy, ocean wave energy also has its disadvantages such as its inflexible generation times dependant upon the tides, the visual impact of wave devices on the seas surface, as well as the threat of collision to shipping and navigation.
Here are some of the main advantages and disadvantages of wave energy.
Wave Energy Advantages
- Wave energy is an abundant and renewable energy resource as the waves are generated by the wind.
- Pollution free as wave energy generates little or no pollution to the environment compared to other green energies.
- Reduces dependency on fossil fuels as wave energy consumes no fossil fuels during operation.
- Wave energy is relatively consistent and predictable as waves can be accurately forecast several days in advance.
- Wave energy devices are modular and easily sited with additional wave energy devices added as needed.
- Dissipates the waves energy protecting the shoreline from coastal erosion.
- Presents no barriers or difficulty to migrating fish and aquatic animals.
Wave Energy Disadvantages
- Visual impact of wave energy conversion devices on the shoreline and offshore floating buoys or platforms.
- Wave energy conversion devices are location dependent requiring suitable sites were the waves are consistently strong.
- Intermittent power generation as the waves come in intervals and does not generate power during calm periods.
- Offshore wave energy devices can be a threat to navigation that cannot see or detect them by radar.
- High power distribution costs to send the generated power from offshore devices to the land using long underwater cables.
- They must be able to withstand forces of nature resulting in high capital, construction and maintenance costs.
Wave Energy Summary
We have seen that there is a wide variety of wave energy conversion devices which can be used to harness the energy captured by a wave power generating system. Some of the wave energy devices mentioned above are built on the shoreline, making the engineering and construction of these schemes much easier, eliminating the need for long underwater cables runs. But the power density of waves is much less than is available some distance offshore. However, this can be partly compensated for by the concentration of the wave energy.
Offshore devices are situated in much deeper water, with typical depths of more than 30 metres. The wave power available at these deep ocean sites is about three to eight times the wave power available at shoreline sites with a range of completely submerged wave energy conversion devices available for offshore use. The type of wave energy conversion device used in a particular location, depends on the type of device and its distance from the shoreline.
In the next tutorial about Wave Energy, we will look in detail at some of the more common Wave Energy Devices currently being used to generate electricity from the sea.
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