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Gross Wave Energy Resource Versus Exploitable Wave Energy Resource –

Towards a Superior Method of Energy Analysis
a report by
Matt Folley
Queen’s University Belfast

There is currently a large range of technologies designed to exploit However, this method of calculation is rarely used because the
wave energy all at different stages of development, from initial ideas higher wind speeds make an overly large contribution to the wind
on the backs of envelopes to full-scale commercial prototypes energy resource. The contribution from high wind speeds is overly
deployed in some of the most aggressive and energetic seas in the large because wind turbines generally become less efficient at high
world. However, the exploitation of wave energy remains limited, wind speeds and are limited by their generator rating so that,
and large-scale wave farms are yet to be developed. This is partly although the wind energy resource physically exists, it is not
because wave energy technology remains in its infancy and is generally exploitable. In actuality, average wind speed is commonly
approximately 20 years behind the development of wind turbine used as an effective measure of wind energy resource, which is
technology. Wave energy is also hampered by the lack of a clear clearly at variance with the cubic relationship between wind speed
assessment of wave energy resource, which is required to provide an and wind power density, but it does effectively limit the contribution
economic argument for the development of wave farms. of very high wind speeds to the average wind energy resource.

It may at first seem a relatively simple task to calculate the wave Returning to wave energy, the question is: ‘Is there a more suitable
energy resource. Years of observational data on waves together with measure of wave energy resource than one that simply includes all
modern computer simulations of the world’s oceans mean that it is of the wave energy passing through a particular point?’ Specifically,
possible to estimate which waves occur at a particular site with a is there a measure that accounts appropriately for the range of
relatively high level of confidence and accuracy. The hydrodynamics parameters that make up the wave energy resource and that is also
of waves are relatively well understood and so it would seem that suitable for the large range of device concepts that currently exist
the average wave energy resource can be calculated by simply including offshore, nearshore and shoreline technologies? In
combining these two pieces of knowledge to produce the average particular, the resource measure must not distort selection of the
gross wave energy resource. Indeed, this has been done and maps most promising technologies because the resource measure is either
showing estimates of the average gross wave energy resource can be overly generous or overly pessimistic for any one technology or
readily downloaded from the Internet. group of technologies.

Maps of the average gross wave energy resource may be able to It may be questioned why wave energy resource needs to be reduced
indicate on a global scale the more promising locations for wave to a single value; after all, it is inherently complex and so not very
farms – for example, not surprisingly they show that the Atlantic suitable for such a severe reduction. A multiple-valued or parametric
Ocean has a much larger wave energy resource than the measure of wave energy resource would seem more
Mediterranean Sea. However, they tell us nothing about the appropriate. However, a single-valued (gross) wave energy resource
characteristics of the wave energy resource and how well suited it is is extremely convenient for the calculation of total potential wave
for exploitation. energy resource for regions, countries and globally. This is because
it will be used to inform investment decisions based on potential
A brief review of how wind energy resource is typically defined can levels of return and can be easily understood by non-technical
help to throw light on the complexity of resource estimation. It is decision-makers. A single-valued wave energy resource is also useful
well known that wind power density increases with the cube of the for the initial assessment of a wave farm site’s potential yield, where
wind speed. Therefore, a simple calculation of the gross wind energy it must be decided whether a site is likely to be economically viable
resource would involve multiplying the probability of occurrence of and therefore worthy of further investment. Thus, the ‘market pull’
each wind speed with the cube of that wind speed to determine its for a single-valued wave energy resource is extremely strong and it
contribution to the gross wind energy resource. is wise to accept that, in reality, it will be used to make strategic
decisions irrespective of its actual appropriateness.

Given that a single-valued measure of wave energy resource will be
used, it is clearly important that this measure provide the most
accurate indication of what the yield of a wave farm will be; however,
the gross wave energy resource is inadequate for this in two
significant ways. First, the gross wave energy resource includes all of
the incident wave energy, including all of the energy in highly
energetic seas, although in these seas the majority of wave energy
cannot be exploited. Second, the gross wave energy resource includes


Gross Wave Energy Resource versus Exploitable Wave Energy Resource

the wave energy passing through a point irrespective of the direction It remains to be seen how use of the exploitable wave energy
of propagation, but a wave farm will typically consist of a string of resource affects global maps of wave energy, but it will clearly help
wave energy converters orientated to face the predominant direction to promote locations with more consistent and directionally
of wave propagation. Thus, waves approaching from the sides will not concentrated wave energy resources, which are highly desirable
be fully available to any one converter in the wave farm because its characteristics for wave farm sites. However, at a local level this re-
neighbours will have already extracted some of the wave energy. definition of wave energy resource also changes the relationship
between offshore and near-shore resources in a significant way.
That a wave farm will have a specific orientation is a consequence of
the characteristics of wave energy resource, which is concentrated Using the traditional measure of gross wave energy resource, the
near the surface of the ocean and has a dominant direction of offshore wave energy resource is often quoted as being about twice
propagation that requires many hundreds of kilometres of open as large as the near-shore wave energy resource, where the
water to grow to exploitable levels. This is why the wave energy nearshore is defined as having a water depth of between 10 and 15
resource is large in the North Atlantic, which has thousands of metres. This has led to the marginalisation of the near-shore as a
kilometres of open water, and small in the Mediterranean Sea, potential location for wave energy converters, even though it may
where the fetch length is much shorter. Thus, any wave energy have a number of advantages such as a reduced distance to shore
converter placed in the lee of another will have a smaller resource to and a smaller maximum wave height due to the larger waves
exploit due to the energy extracted by the first wave energy breaking further offshore.
converter and so is likely to be less productive. The natural
consequence of this is that a wave farm will undoubtedly consist of Using the exploitable wave energy resource, however, the difference
a string of wave energy converters orientated to face the between offshore and nearshore resources is generally significantly
predominant direction of wave propagation. reduced; the nearshore resource is often only 10–20% less than the
offshore resource. This is because as waves approach the shore they
This is unlike the layout of a wind farm, which can be much more are influenced by the seabed, which filters out the most energetic
flexible and 2D. Its layout is primarily determined by the local waves while leaving the smaller, more exploitable waves largely
topography and the distance downstream of a wind turbine required unaffected. It also refracts the waves so that they all approach from
for the wind energy resource to recover. Incidentally, this is an a more concentrated directional sector. Thus, a much larger
important distinction between the layouts of wave and wind farms proportion of the near,shore wave energy resource is exploitable
that has not always been appreciated when comparing the seascape compared with the offshore wave energy resource. This means
usage of offshore wind farms and wave farms. that although there is a large difference between gross wave energy
resources, the difference between the exploitable wave energy
In place of gross wave energy resource, a superior measure of wave resources is much smaller.
energy resource would be one that includes only the wave energy that
is reasonably exploitable. Thus, the exploitable wave energy resource Ultimately, modification of the definition of the wave energy
must be able to discount the contribution of highly energetic sea- resource will not directly change the cost of generating electricity by
states as well as the contribution from waves that are not travelling in waves, but at this early stage in the development of wave energy
a direction orthogonal to the alignment of the wave farm. technology perceptions are important both within the industry and
in society in general.
The first of these constraints can be achieved by simply defining a
maximum wave power that a sea-state can contribute to the While it is perhaps not actually dishonest, it is highly misleading to use
resource. Arguments can be made for a number of different values a measure of resource that includes energy that is technically
of maximum wave power, but four times the average incident wave unexploitable. Thus, the historical use of gross wave energy resource is
power is suggested as reasonable. This is because the typical load misleading although it is likely that this has been due to a lack of rigour
factor of wave energy converters – about 30% – means electricity rather than any attempt to increase the apparent resource artificially.
generation from sea-states with higher powers than about four
times the average will most likely be limited by the generator rating More significantly, the use of the gross wave energy resource has
and should be discounted. inadvertently marginalised the development of nearshore wave
energy technologies as offshore wave energy technologies have
The second constraint can be achieved by resolving the incident chased the unexploitable wave energy resource offshore.
wave power to only include that which is travelling the same way as Consequently, use of the exploitable wave energy resource will help
the principal direction of wave energy propagation, since this is likely to level the playing field so that all technologies are assessed on
to be the direction with which a wave farm will be aligned. similar grounds and effort focused on genuinely promising wave
energy technologies unhindered by inappropriate measures of wave
energy resource. ■