After Solar and Wind, is Wave Power Next Up for NJ?

On the heels of the Biden administration’s announcement earlier this month that it has scheduled a February auction to lease more than 480,000 acres of New Jersey and New York offshore waters for wind turbines, Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak (D-Middlesex) has promised to introduce new legislation to bolster investment in another form of renewable energy: waves.

Karabinchak made the announcement on the floor of the Nasdaq Stock Exchange, during the bellringing ceremony of  a decade-old Israel-based company that has so far built two power generation pilot programs, one in Europe and one in the Middle East.

“As a legislature, we are looking at creating more renewable energy sources to add to our clean energy goals,” Karabinchak, who chairs the Assembly Special Committee on Infrastructure and Natural Resources, said. “And [wave energy] is one that we believe is going to have the ability to grow.”

The proposed legislation’s goal, Karabinchak said, is to ensure that wave energy is a part of New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan, which seeks to accelerate the state’s renewables sector, primarily wind and solar, in order to reach 100% clean energy by 2050.

While he sees wave energy as “clearly a technology that, if we could perfect it, has unlimited potential,” Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, cautions that a bill calling for the renewable to be included in the state’s master plan is a small first step.

“The Energy Master Plan is just a fancy Word doc,” O’Malley said. “It’s a plan — it doesn’t have regulatory authority.”

What about subsidies?

If the bill were to pass, O’Malley added, “there’ll be a broader question of would the state want to provide direct subsidies to wave energy,” like it has done for wind and solar.

“Wave or tidal action” is listed as a Class I renewable energy resource under guidelines set by the state’s Board of Public Utilities, along with wind, solar, and a host of controversial combustion technologies like biomass gas, ethanol-powered fuel cells, methane captured from landfills, and others.

Though O’Malley said “there hasn’t been a reason to push wave technology because we haven’t been able to show that it’s commercially viable in a big way yet,” he sees it as having a “natural connection” with wind and solar. “The hope is that wave could supplement other, more mature renewable technologies.”

Eco Wave Power’s founder and CEO, Inna Braverman, has spent the last decade trying to put waves on the same scale as wind and solar. With two pilot projects in Gibraltar and Israel successfully generating power, she has turned her sights on the U.S.

“I think most states are really keen on promoting renewable energy, but you can’t only depend on solar or only wind,” Braverman said. “If you use all renewable energy sources, you really can get an 100% environmentally friendly world.”

Already starting in California

Before coming to New Jersey, Braverman was in California, where Eco Wave Power is in the early stages of developing a pilot system that would be built within the Port of Los Angeles.

The connection with Karabinchak came not through Braverman’s outreach, however, but from the assemblyman himself.

“Our team started looking into it in 2020,” said Ben Ghiano, Karabinchak’s chief of staff. “We started exploring beyond typical renewables and researching a number of wave energy companies.”

Then, in 2021, a friend forwarded to Ghiano a YouTube video that featured Eco Wave Power. That kicked off a dialogue that culminated in Karabinchak’s promise last week to codify wave power in New Jersey’s renewable energy goals.

“We talked to other companies that are doing the same thing,” Karabinchak said. “But Inna’s was way farther along in the technology.”

It’s been tried before

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the annual wave energy potential of the country’s coasts is “estimated to be as much as 2.64 trillion kilowatt hours, or the equivalent of about 66% of U.S. electricity generation in 2020.”

“There’s an incredible amount of energy in ocean waves,” said Rutgers University professor of Marine and Coastal Sciences Robert Chant, whose research focuses on wave and tidal energy. “But the question of harnessing it all — it’s not going to happen.”

For decades, companies have tried. In the 1990s, Scotland began building a bunkerlike structure called the Islay LIMPET. It was the world’s first wave power plant to be connected to a national grid and promised to bring 500 kilowatts of wave energy to the country. It never did and was eventually scrapped. In 2009, it was hoped Portugal’s Pelamis Wave Power Project, a colossal wormlike structure anchored out to sea, would generate 21 megawatts, but it was immediately plagued by structural and financial failure and shut down within months.

There have, however, recently been indications that wave energy technology is progressing.

The Finnish company AW Energy has deployed a 59X32-foot, 350-kilowatt submerged system off the coast of Portugal that, for nearly two years, has withstood the Atlantic’s punishment and been delivering electricity to the grid.

New Jersey’s own Ocean Power Technologies, based in Monroe Township since 1984, developed the “PowerBuoy,” which has been successful at both surviving open ocean conditions and providing power for offshore operations, like scientific research vessels.

Going ‘the safe way’

“When we started the company in 2011, we noticed that 99% of the competitors in the wave energy sector were focused on the offshore,” said Braverman of Eco Wave Power. “We decided to go the safe way.”

Her company’s system — which is designed to connect to existing structures, like piers, breakwaters, jetties, and others —  looks a lot like a multi-legged insect straddling a jetty (Gibraltar) and a breakwater (Israel). The legs are equipped with “floaters” that allow the system to sit on the water’s surface, bobbing up and down with the roll of the waves. The undulating legs pump pistons that power a generator. If the seas get too rough, the legs are raised up from the water and locked into place, tucked against their structure.

Eco Wave Power’s Gibraltar pilot project
Eco Wave Power’s Gibraltar pilot project, pictured here, generates 100 kilowatts of energy, but will soon be expanded. Eco Wave Power’s engineers have already traveled the New Jersey coast, identifying several structures for potential pilot projects like this one.

The Gibraltar system has been connected to the local grid, through an adjacent port’s substation, since 2016. Currently, it generates 100 kilowatts of energy, but it will soon be expanded to produce five megawatts, which Braverman says is “up to 15% of Gibraltar’s energy needs.” A similar system will soon replace a smaller pilot project in the Port of Jaffa, Israel.

Advantages and disadvantages

But Eco Wave Power’s advantage — little risk of damage from extreme conditions and the elimination of complex, costly grid connection — is also its disadvantage. The conditions around structures like piers and breakwaters often cannot match those of offshore locations, in terms of energy generation.

Nevertheless, it was Eco Wave Power’s nearshore approach that attracted Karabinchak and his staff.

New Jersey’s coastline is already highly developed, Karabinchak said, with piers and other marine structures “where this wave energy could be utilized.”

Eco Wave Power’s engineering team has already identified “several” potential locations up and down the coast. Of these options, Atlantic City’s Playground and Steel piers are “especially suitable for a demo,” according to Danielle Bilik, the company’s executive corporate affairs manager.

Other potential locations are on the future offshore wind turbines themselves. The Eco Wave Power system, both Braverman and Karabinchak explained, could skirt each turbine’s substructure, just above the ocean’s surface.

“That will just supplement any kind of energy that’s coming from the wind farms,” Karabinchak said.

Braverman also suggested that all the new storm surge and flooding infrastructure that is being considered by the state and federal governments to fend off the worsening impacts of climate change, such as the massive storm surge barrier proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers, could serve as wave-energy generation stations.

“At the end of the day, this is clean energy that’s a source that isn’t going to stop,” Karabinchak said. “And I like tapping that source for us to be able to turn on our lights.”

While he questions the Eco Wave Power system’s ability to harness enough energy to make a dent on New Jersey’s fossil fuel usage, Chant said “we need all hands on deck” in the effort to reach a clean-energy state within the next three decades.

“Even if they can get 1% of that wave energy,” Chant said, “it’s a lot.”

Braverman points to coal, which makes up 3% of New Jersey’s fossil fuel consumption, as a realistic starting point for thinking about how wave energy can be folded into the state’s renewables ambitions.

“I think that it can be a good start, replacing coal with wave energy,” she said. “You’re not producing too much of it, but it is causing a lot of pollution.”

Because it’s impossible to capture the full force of the ocean without building enormous systems that would severely impact marine environments, Chant said, wave energy is not going to be a singular solution.

“But,” he continued, “it can be one component of an allocation of resources.”

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