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Tina Casey headshot

How Wave Energy Can Help Transform America’s Ports

By Tina Casey
Eco Wave Power's wave energy converters at a former World War II ammunition jetty in Gibraltar.

A wave energy station operated by Eco Wave Power. 

The vast shipping ports of the U.S. remain stubborn epicenters of climate-warming greenhouse gas pollution, despite various efforts over the years to reduce emissions. That is about to change. New electrification technologies offer a toolkit for making significant, permanent improvements in air quality, and wave energy converters are poised to play an important role.     

Pollution, ports and electrification

Businesses seeking opportunities to cut their value chain emissions and contribute to environmental justice can meet a stumbling block at U.S. ports. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that diesel engine emissions at ports continue to expose millions of people in nearby communities to health risks from particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, ozone and other toxins. That’s in addition to impacting the climate with carbon dioxide emissions and nanoscale airborne particles called black carbon.

In a 2016 assessment of port emissions, the EPA observed that reducing emissions from individual diesel engines is an important step forward but ultimately not a sustainable solution. The agency anticipated that port activity would continue to increase in the coming years, propelling a rise in diesel emissions overall.

Clearly, new strategies are needed to address the urgency of climate action, and the EPA has identified electrification as a point of focus. “For example, the potential for replacing older cargo handling equipment with electric technologies is significant, with [carbon] emissions being reduced in 2030 by up to 18 percent and in 2050 by up to 45 percent as compared to the Business as Usual case,” the EPA explained in the 2016 assessment.  

On May 5 of this year, the EPA followed up with the launch of two port-decarbonization programs funded through the Inflation Reduction Act. An allocation of $3 billion will build on the agency’s long-running Clean Ports infrastructure program, and another $1 billion will go to the Clean Heavy-Duty Vehicle program.

“The Clean Ports Program builds on [the] EPA’s existing Ports Initiative and will transform port infrastructure while boosting investments for zero-emission port equipment and technology that reduces climate and air pollutants and improves air quality at ports and surrounding communities,” the agency explains.

The Clean Heavy-Duty Vehicle program is aimed at offsetting the cost of replacing older vehicles with new zero-emission models. That includes both battery-electric and fuel-cell-electric vehicles, both of which will require new charging and fueling infrastructure.

Laboratories of change at America’s ports

The missing link in these two programs is a ramp-up in the supply of clean electricity for port operations, including electric vehicles and other equipment. Port planners will also need to consider security, resiliency, and the scale and availability of renewable energy. That will mean focusing attention on opportunities to generate electricity on site.

The Port of Los Angeles has aggressively pursued a more sustainable energy profile since 2006, and it provides a good example of the opportunities and challenges for onsite renewable energy. Much of the activity at the port takes place in the open air, precluding the installation of large-scale solar arrays on rooftops. But some roof space is still available.

The public-private ocean institute AltaSea, for example, recently installed 4,753 solar panels on the roof of its new Center for Innovation at the Port of Los Angeles. The port is also constructing, or has already installed, solar arrays at parking lots, berths, underused sites and several other buildings. The port anticipates 10 megawatts of additional solar power when all planned onsite installations are complete, accounting for about a sixth of its overall power demand.

That is an impressive start, but there is still a long way to go. With limited opportunities to install wind turbines on site, wave energy converters could fill the gap.

Wave energy converters are mechanical devices that use the natural motion of waves to generate electricity. They transfer kinetic energy from the moving water to a generator.

Wave energy technology has attracted considerable interest over the years due to its enormous potential, especially along the West Coast of the U.S. In theory, wave energy alone could have accounted for more than 64 percent of all utility-scale electricity the country generated in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

Wave energy is finally having a moment

Despite years of activity in the experimental stage, wave energy has yet to emerge in the U.S. energy market with anywhere near the speed and saturation of wind and solar power.

Inna Braverman, co-founder and CEO of the wave energy company Eco Wave Power, attributes part of the lag to a series of high-profile setbacks when the industry was first developing in the early 2000s.

At the time, wave energy converters were designed for use in the open ocean. One especially notorious failure was the “big red snake,” an articulated wave energy converter that launched three miles off the coast of Portugal in 2008 to great fanfare. The device encountered problems almost immediately, and it was eventually declared a failure.

That episode may have cooled investor interest somewhat, but the potential for an enormous renewable energy payoff continues to attract interest. Hawaii, for example, includes wave energy in its plans to transition to 100 percent renewables. The U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Energy also continue to fund wave energy research projects in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest.

In the meantime, Eco Wave Power (EWP) is gaining traction for another approach to site selection. Instead of tethering wave energy devices to an offshore location, EWP devices are adjoined to breakwaters and other existing shoreline infrastructure. The shoreline solution is finding an encouraging reception among port planners, Braverman said.

Eco Wave Power's wave energy converters use the natural motion of waves to generate electricity.
Eco Wave Power's wave energy converters use the natural motion of waves to generate electricity.

“Since we are not offshore, governments actually get excited. They want solutions for their port cities,” Braverman said.

A streamlined regulatory framework for portside wave energy converters would accelerate the process. “It might take as little as six months to install a 100-kilowatt, demonstration-scale project completely, including connections,” she said, but the actual rollout can take much longer without a supportive permitting process.

Because the technology is relatively new, financing can also be difficult to obtain, she said. “Optimistically, wind and solar had exactly the same problems with regulation and financing," she told us. "We just have to be patient and persistent.”

More renewable energy for the Port of Los Angeles and beyond

EWP has successfully demonstrated its wave energy converters at a former World War II ammunition jetty in Gibraltar since 2016. The 100-kilowatt pilot project logged almost 50,000 hours of grid-connected power generation until 2022 when it relocated to the Port of Los Angeles with the support of AltaSea.

The AltaSea pilot project showcases new upgrades to the EWP wave converters, and it demonstrates that the equipment can be relocated as needs change. The company is also in talks with stakeholders in Spain, Morocco and Portugal, and it has another project underway in Israel.

Braverman anticipates that the AltaSea installation will serve as a demonstration project that stimulates interest in wave energy among other U.S. states. New Jersey and Georgia are two likely targets. “Seeing is believing,” she said.

Images courtesy of Eco Wave Power

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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