Can shore-based wave power unlock clean, affordable ocean energy?

Israeli startup Eco Wave Power says its tech steers clear of the pitfalls that have sunk previous efforts.

Eight blue wave power devices sit in the ocean in front of a large brown rock
Eco Wave Power's floaters pull out of the water to minimize damage during storms and choppy seas. (Eco Wave Power)
  • Link copied to clipboard

Many have tried to harness the ocean’s power to generate electricity, resulting in several embarrassing failures and little tangible success. Startup Eco Wave Power hopes to transcend that tempestuous legacy with a radically simple idea: capture the ocean’s energy closer to shore. 

This approach sacrifices the greater energy potential of larger offshore waves, but it avoids the destruction such waves wreak on machinery. Eco Wave Power installs and services its equipment on breakwaters or seawalls, eliminating the need for ships and divers. 

Founder and CEO Inna Braverman launched the company in 2011 when she was a 20-something recent university graduate with a political science degree. After working as a translator at a renewable energy development company, she became convinced that wave power could work, but that most companies trying it failed because they made things too hard for themselves.

Subscribe to receive Canary's latest news

Start where it’s easy, develop, get the world trusting in you and believing in you, and then go offshore,” she told Canary Media on a recent visit to Los Angeles. It’s a bit of a no-brainer.”

A decade later, Braverman runs a publicly traded company commercializing dockside wave energy technology that has supplied power to the grid in Gibraltar for six years. Now she’s bringing the equipment to the Port of Los Angeles to show American audiences how it works.

If successful, Eco Wave Power will embark on the unenviable task of navigating permitting and regulations for a kind of technology that’s never really been commercialized in the U.S. But the company believes it can supply coastal areas with power at prices that compete with cheap wind and solar.

If that proves to be true, Eco Wave Power will be adding a new category of renewable energy to the arsenal for decarbonizing the grid and fighting against climate change.

A nautical bounty — if you can catch it

The ocean packs a punch. The massive quantities of kinetic energy delivered in the form of waves could easily power the whole world, according to the folks who bother to tally that sort of hypothetical. But that presupposes that humans can tame Poseidon’s chaos. 

Attempts to capture this vast supply of energy have been the undoing of many well-meaning technological ventures. 

In 2014, Oceanlinx attempted a 12-month demonstration of a 1-megawatt wave power unit in Australian waters. Much of the AUD $6.6 million project was funded by the Australian government, which resorted to a cryptic use of passive voice to document the outcome: 

Complications were experienced during transportation of the device, 24 hours into the operation. The device was set down in shallow waters off the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia. As a result of the transportation complications, the device was damaged beyond repair.

Scottish company Pelamis tried for a decade and managed to install a giant sea-snake” contraption off of Scotland and in a short-lived wave park” off the coast of Portugal in 2008. The 2.25-megawatt Portugal project cost $12.9 million and had to be pulled out of the water almost immediately due to technical problems. Pelamis ultimately ran out of money in 2014

In the U.S., Verdant Power has been trying to wring tidal energy out of the relatively mild waters of the East River since 2002. Early versions of the company’s device suffered from machinery being damaged by the very current it was supposed to be catching. As of summer 2021, this company had a three-turbine demonstration unit sending power to the New York City grid.

The problem here, from a business standpoint, is that the output of a wave power generator isn’t anything special — it’s clean electricity, which can be produced cheaply by wind or solar plants. 

For wave energy to play a role in fighting climate change, it must be impervious to the battering of the sea while keeping costs low enough to compete with other clean sources. The renewables markets regularly reward simple, convenient forms of clean energy production over more complicated and bespoke alternatives.

Braverman raised her company’s first million dollars from an investor who agreed with the entrepreneur’s assessment that other startups in the wave energy field had a tendency to bite off more than they could chew. She staffed up by returning to her remote hometown in Ukraine and hosting a hackathon for engineering concepts that could fit the company’s parameters. The five most promising contestants got a job and set about turning their designs into reality. 

The floaters that Eco Wave Power installs are cheap but sturdy. Their bobbing motion pumps hydraulic fluid into a collector tank onshore. The collector releases the pressurized fluid to turn a motor and generate electricity. If a major storm comes, the floaters lift out of the waves to avoid damage. 

Instead of spending millions on an initial grid-connected project, Eco Wave Power built its Gibraltar unit for $450,000.

Offshore designs typically need to anchor to the ocean floor, which creates an environmental disturbance. Braverman envisions her technology clinging to the miles of seawalls and breakwaters that protect harbors and coastal cities. 

We don’t take prime real estate, we don’t take beaches, we don’t take surf zones,” Braverman said. You’re not going to put a hotel on the breakwater.” 

Those human-built structures already exist, and many will likely be expanded in coming years to fortify against rising sea levels. 

Awash in demos, but not in contracts

Braverman is confident in the technology, but she still needs to convince potential customers it works in different types of bodies of water. Eco Wave Power is constructing a grid-connected power station in Israel, and it has received licensing to build a megawatt-scale facility in Porto, Portugal.

The company is disassembling its Gibraltar project to ship to the Port of Los Angeles, where it will be installed as part of the AltaSea nonprofit, which supports sustainable ocean-centric technologies. The steel floaters will be recycled and replaced, and the more expensive energy conversion equipment will be adapted to fit U.S. electrical codes. The machinery should be installed at the Port of L.A. in the summer of 2022, Braverman estimates. 

The goal will be to open it completely to research institutions, universities, investors, media [and] everybody, so for the first time, people in the U.S. can actually see a wave energy power station working,” she said.

Perhaps seeing it work will convince some customers to cut a deal for wave power. Wave power demonstration projects are plentiful, but commercial contracts are the real prize.

Braverman insists the company has raised the capital it needs to execute on its near-term business plan. The Israeli startup went public on Sweden’s Nasdaq exchange two years ago. It reached the U.S. Nasdaq last year and is moving to have that as its sole listing. 

But generating real revenue requires overcoming bureaucratic inertia and the lack of regulatory paradigms for novel technologies. 

A lot of the countries, because wave energy is so new, they still don’t have the policies and regulations and licensing pathways for wave energy,” Braverman noted.

Assuming that ports and cities figure out how to approve a permit for this, Eco Wave Power could sell the energy it generates in a number of ways. It could offer power-purchase agreements, which are typical for wind and solar power. It could sell electricity into a market at the spot price. Or it could structure a private deal, such as providing electricity to a marina for resale to the shipowners that dock there. 

A harbor with 3 to 5 kilometers of breakwater could generate around 50 megawatts of power by installing floaters, according to Braverman. And commercial harbors have a high demand for electricity, especially as ports move to electrify the loading and unloading of cargo vessels to reduce air and climate pollution. 

Coastal power could also supply population hubs with local renewable energy in areas where large-scale wind and solar plants may not be feasible because real estate is too pricey. 

I don’t see solar and wind as competition,” Braverman said. I really think and believe with all my heart that we should do all of them.”

Wave power could ultimately complement California’s other renewables to help meet its 100 percent clean electricity goal, said AltaSea CEO Terry Tamminen, who oversaw environmental policy for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

We’re doing everything we can on wind and solar and other kinds of renewables, and using our energy more efficiently, but it’s going to be that last 2, 3, 5, 10 percent to get to our goal of decarbonizing that’s going to matter,” he said.

Julian Spector is senior reporter at Canary Media.