Like all the world’s oceans, in neverending motion, the vast North Pacific seems an untapped colossus of clean, sustainable energy. Harnessing that potential is a complex quandary being examined by over 200 companies worldwide. University of Victoria professor Dr. Bryson Roberston, moved by the power of waves since his days as a South African surf grom, aims to answer the trillion dollar question: will it pay to plug in?
“But when you see wave heights like that from our buoy on the amphitrite bank, you can’t help but be in a little bit of awe. The next time you’re downtown, look up and imagine waves the size of a five-storey building. That’s a pretty impressive thing.”
Dr. Bryson Robertson, West Coast Wave Initiative
What is wave energy conversion, and how does it work? Well, it isn’t exactly new — in 1910 an inventor on the French coast built a device that used waves to light his home, and by the 1970s hundreds of patents for wave-energy converters, or WECs, had been filed around the world. Despite a surfeit of ideas, wave energy stayed on the fringe — power from fossil fuels, dams and nuclear plants proved cheaper, more accessible and easier to apply at grid scales. Because of climate change, rising fuel costs and technological advances, renewable energy sources have become more attractive in recent decades, prompting a global wave-power development industry. In 2004, a test device called the Pelamis 750, deployed off northern Scotland, was the first to feed wave power into a national grid. Now, a decade later, close to 200 companies around the world are working on wave power devices.
Robertson was one of those who wanted to know more. He took a job near Vancouver, but the surf bug wouldn’t let go. With his brother and a close friend, he left his job to embark on a venture called OceanGybe, a three-year, around-the-world sailing trip. Along the way they collected data to track plastic pollution and, conveniently, they also rode some of the perfect empty waves that surfers always dream of.
At the same time, Robertson was starting work on a PhD in coastal engineering, studying the dynamics of breaking surf. “It dovetailed perfectly with OceanGybe,” he says. “I wanted to get great waves, and the boat could get us right to the places I wanted to study. I also knew I was positioning myself so my future career would be near the beach and I’d be able to surf. There was definitely a bit of extra motivation in that.”
After returning from a successful circumnavigation, it was Robertson’s engineering work that landed him back in Victoria with a position at the WCWI. “There’s still a need for people on the coast who understand how to go out and physically build things in the water and be able to cross that void between academia and industry,” he explains. “And that’s more or less much of what I do now.” His day-to-day job, as he describes it, seems tailor-made for a surfer with an analytical brain: maintaining wave-measurement buoys, building marine forecast models and understanding the wave climate of the West Coast “better than anyone else has.” The handy byproduct of his studies is knowing when it’s worth whipping out to Sooke — an hour from Victoria — for a few waves before heading to the lab.
Most present-day WECs look like designs from Popular Mechanics or set props from the film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. And on paper at least, they’re remarkable machines. A unit called the SurfPower, a buoyant wing envisioned by Vancouver Island’s Seawood Designs, would have a maximum rated capacity of 500 kilowatts; a typical installation would employ 50 units with a capacity of 25 megawatts, or enough to power 5,000 homes. Another device, currently in quarter-scale testing in Ireland, would output enough energy to power 1,500 homes per year. But whether or not the devices are practical to build, to install and to operate is another question, and that’s where the WCWI comes in.
Founded in 2011 and comprised of professors, grad students, researchers and engineers, the group’s work includes assessing how much wave energy resource can be collected off British Columbia’s coast, testing and verifying WEC technologies, considering environmental impacts and assessing how wave energy could be used at both local and regional scales. “Before our project,” Robertson says, “there weren’t enough buoys collecting the right measurements to know the extent of the resource.” But if industry and government are going to invest millions in tapping power from the sea, they need to know their investment is going to be worthwhile.
“Our work,” he continues, “is really to take an objective view and see if it makes sense to get power from the ocean. I’ve always been interested in renewable resources because I see them as things we’ll need to use in the future. But I’m an engineer, so I’m less focused on the emotion of it and more on the numbers. Do these technologies make sense for British Columbia, and can we use them to wean ourselves off carbon-intensive fuels? Everyone was working on it in this sort of Never Never Land…People are not going to build this power-producing capacity out of the goodness of their hearts and the need to preserve things — it has to be not only a benefit to the planet, but also to the energy developers or we won’t see it come into operation.”
The initial signs, though, are good. While the wave-energy resource off northern Scotland, for example, is rated at around 25 kilowatts per minute (kW/m), the WCWI has assessed the Amphitrite Bank site at 33 kW/m. Farther north, sites off Haida Gwaii have been rated even higher at 45 kW/m. It’s easy to get lost in a swirl of numbers, but the point is this: the energy is out there waiting if we can summon the political and industrial will to switch the coast, at least partly, to zero-emission energy.
“It’s funny,” says Robertson, “because a lot of this work is taking things that surfers know intuitively and being able to quantify and verify them. That aspect of the work has been really intriguing to me. And I was able to go out and put buoys in the ocean and get access to a lot of data nobody else has. These days, surfers look at a lot of wave prediction sites online and take what they say as gospel, but those sites run on simple numerical models and aren’t always predicting what they should be. So being able to build our own models and develop my own understandings of how waves work on our coast has been pretty useful.”
The WCWI’s vision for wave energy is long-term, and it starts at the smaller scales — think of remote communities like Hot Springs Cove being powered by waves, for example, offsetting the cost and impact of diesel-fuelled generators. But if wave power is used to its full extent, there’s potential for more widespread use.
“I’d love us to be able to show that in the 20- or 30-year time frame, we’ll see the economics start to make sense,” Robertson says, “so we can see marine energy come online in a practical way. It would be amazing for Vancouver Island to be self-sufficient and even to be feeding wave energy into the grid for western North America. That would offset some of the coal and gas power we use and would really start to position us as one of the greener economies worldwide.”
It seems a vision worth working for, and one especially enticing to people who are already tapped into the unceasing energy that runs through the sea. Imagine shaping a new surfboard with tools powered by waves or driving to the beach in an electric vehicle charged by the same swell that’s about to get you shacked at the Point. Who knows — a cleaner planet aside, the good karma involved might even send us a few more of those spinning midwinter tubes.