Converting wave energy into electricity

Capturing wave energy and converting it into electricity is not an easy task, but researchers have developed technology to overcome the problems. Three of the pioneering devices are described here.


TAPCHAN is the name of a prototype generator that was installed on a remote Norwegian island in 1985 and has been functioning ever since. The name is an abbreviation of ‘tapered channel’, which describes the basic idea behind the device. TAPCHAN consists of a reservoir built into a cliff a few metres above sea level. Leading into it is a tapered channel – wide at the mouth, which is open to the sea, and becoming narrower as it penetrates the reservoir. Incoming waves increase in height as they move up the channel, eventually overflowing the lip of the channel and pouring into the reservoir. In this way, TAPCHAN converts the kinetic energy of the wave into potential energy, which is subsequently converted into electrical energy by a generator as the water is fed back to the sea through a pipe.

Oscillating water column

Another kind of wave energy converter is known as the oscillating water column (OWC). Like TAPCHAN, this is a fixed device – which means that the housing of the device does not move – located either onshore or fixed to the seabed. It consists of a wedge-shaped chamber that is open to the sea at the bottom. A wave surging into this chamber forces air upwards, which drives a turbine both on its way up (as the wave surges) and on its way down (as the wave recedes). These oscillations give the device its generic name. To take best advantage of this two-way flow, a special kind of turbine (such as the British-designed Wells turbine) is needed.

An Australian scientist claims to have produced an innovative OWC design that greatly improves its performance. Dr Tom Denniss, from Energetech Australia, uses a parabolic wall (shaped like a satellite dish) to focus the energy of an incoming wave. The rushing air is used to drive a special turbine he claims is four to five times as efficient as the Wells turbine. A 200-300 kilowatt prototype is under development and will probably be installed at Wollongong or Newcastle, in New South Wales.

The duck

The ‘duck’ is an example of a floating wave energy converter. It is not fixed to the shore or seabed, relying instead on the ‘nodding’ motion of floats to drive a generator. In fixed devices, the turbine is fixed while the water or air rushes past its blades. Floating devices generate their power by the relative motion of components as they bob up and down in the sea. The duck consists of rows of floats, each generating electricity that is fed ashore by a connecting cable.

One of the advantages of floating devices over fixed devices it that they can be deployed in deeper water, where wave energy is greater (since waves lose energy with decreasing water depth). There is no need for significant earthworks, either, as there is with onshore devices.

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