Saturday, 7 May 2022

Can we make an investment case for wave energy?


This was the question put to the discussion panel in last week’s ‘MORE/COER Wave Energy Workshop’ in Turin (my first trip out of the UK in almost 3 years). It was one of those questions that often comes up over quiet caffeinated chats, yet is rarely voiced in a crowded room. 

The picture on the big screen behind the conference chair, John Ringwood, was of a high speed electric train and a steam train – a metaphor for the different rates of technology development between offshore wind and wave energy. He expressed concern that many of the attendees of past CEOR wave energy control workshops were already working in offshore wind. The panel were invited to comment on ways to get around this disadvantaged start. Two potential strategies suggested were: hitching the ‘wave-energy train’ to the ‘high-speed wind train’ (Anna Brit Melo was not convinced that the offshore wind sector would accept the additional risk of wave energy converters mounted on the sub-structures) or niche markets such as aqua-culture (Matt Folley clarified that our end goal is to provide a significant percentage of grid electricity, and that nursery markets are a necessary means to an end).

Here’s my take on the question: the development route will depend on the timing of shocks to our economy, energy systems, and planetary systems, and also on how we define ‘an investment case’. The reason why this discussion felt awkward was that, given the implicit assumption that the future can be extrapolated from the present, the future for wave power looks distinctly … meh.

If we extrapolate our current economic value system, whereby an investment case is judged solely on return on capital, then we will have to face up to the difficultly of raising pre-commercial funding. Under the assumption of extrapolation, we can look to the development of wind energy, and note that it started with small turbines for niche markets, and progressed by scaling up size, increasing complexity and converging the design. It is reasonable to infer that a similar route would work for wave energy. This feels uncomfortable, as it is a slow route; we know we need grid-scale in the near future, and the EU and US funding mechanisms are pushing for developers to go directly to grid-scale.

Under the assumption of extrapolation, we can assume that our economy will slowly decarbonise, aiming for net zero by, say, 2050. This would mobilise patient investment for grid-scale marine renewables; both wave energy and floating offshore wind. In fact, the question of competition had earlier been put to Edoardo Dellarole, the speaker for ENI, a carbon-intensive energy company who has a 2050 net-zero aim. Edoardo answered that it was indeed a race, and that ENI was investigating both wave and offshore wind at the moment.

I’d like to suggest an alternative to the extrapolation assumption. A few years ago, extrapolation would not have helped us anticipate a global pandemic and disruption to Europe’s gas supplies; indeed perhaps extrapolation nudged us to dismiss the signs of armies massing on borders and deserted Chinese cities.

The tepid commitments made at the Glasgow COP suggest that we have a similar blindspot with regards to the biosphere crisis. But the signs are there: the Glasgow COP has not put us on a path for 1.5 degrees; the recent IPCC report gave stark warnings of the impacts of exceeding 1.5 degrees, with warnings of looming tipping points (B.2.2), interacting impacts and cascading risks (B.2.1). We know that fluctuations mark the transition from one stable state to another equilibrium point. We have enough evidence to warn us to expect the unexpected.

What we don’t know is what the next planetary shock will be, or when it will come. If it happens after 2050 then we will probably continue to believe in maƱana decarbonisation. If however these shocks happen sooner, we will have no option but to adjust our values and to broaden our definition of an ‘investment case’. The context may shift from choosing mitigation to having adaption thrust upon us. 

The first half of 2020 showed us how we respond collectively to global threats. Neo-liberal capitalism goes out the door. We focus our efforts on this common threat; we make previously inconceivable sacrifices. In terms of understanding the biosphere crisis, I think most people are where we were at the end of 2019 with the pandemic. If shocks to planetary cycles or geopolitical energy supply shift public consciousness towards the solidarity we saw at the start of our first lockdowns, I believe there will be an urgent investment in grid-scale wave energy. I would suggest that this presents a strong investment case for wave energy now. We are living through chaotic times; we need to keep our options open so that we have the resilience to respond to global shocks.

Image credit:

‘On the tracks' by Lauren Young and Iain Braid, originally downloaded from the now defunct site; they now post on

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