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Ocean waves provide a predictable source of energy that is easily tapped, and will likely have minimal impact on the environment, but the U.S. government is not pursuing this renewable resource.

Recent advancements in the technology indicate that with a relatively small investment from the government, wave energy could soon compete with other renewable sources.

Wave energy systems place objects on the water’s surface that generate energy by rising and falling with the waves. The wave energy in turn moves a buoy or cylinder up and down, which turns a generator that sends the electricity through an undersea cable to a power station on the shore.

Several companies – Ocean Power Delivery, AquaEnergy Group and Ocean Power Technology – have developed prototype wave energy conversion systems that the companies say are ready to be deployed along United States coastlines.

The potential energy to be captured from ocean waves could surpass the other forms of renewable energy such as solar, wind, or hydropower, according to a recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a research group funded by hundreds of utilities.

According to a report released in January, 2005, the total wave power along the coastlines of the U.S. is approximately 2,100 terrawatt hours per year, nearly as much as all of the electricity produced by coal and roughly 10 times the total energy produced by all of the country’s hydroelectric plants.

Wave energy systems can capture the same amount of energy using smaller and less expensive equipment than wind or solar systems, according to Roger Bedard of EPRI, who authored the study.

Wave energy “is among the most environmentally benign technologies,” and is less visible than off shore wind farms, according to Bedard. He says wave energy conversion devices have a smaller footprint than offshore wind farms and interfere less with marine life movements.  

Bedard says that wave energy systems requires smaller investments than offshore wind energy systems because the equipment is much lighter, but the private sector has been wary to invest because the expense for setting up demonstrations is high, and obtaining federal permits can take many years.

Instead, Bedard says the federal government should step in with funding to help the technology succeed.

“Very simply, new energy sources have always been funded by the federal government,” Bedard says. However, “(t)he Department of Energy does not have an ocean energy program.”.

The Department of Energy had a program for ocean energy, but it was discontinued, according to spokesman Tom Welch.

Several wave energy systems are currently being tested in the United Kingdom, a country which according to Bedard “wants to be the world leader.”

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