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Wave- and tidal-energy systems harness natural oceanic flows—among the most powerful and constant dynamics on earth—to generate electricity. A variety of companies, utilities, universities, and governments are working to realize the promise of consistent and predictable ocean energy, which currently accounts for a fraction of global electricity generation.
While the ocean’s perpetual power makes wave and tidal energy possible, it also creates obstacles. Operating in harsh and complex marine environments is a challenge—from designing systems to building installations to maintaining them over time. It is more expensive than producing electricity on solid ground.
Despite decades of work, marine technologies are still in early development and lag well behind solar and wind. Tidal energy is more established than wave, with more projects in operation today. Across the world, a variety of wave-energy technologies are being tested and honed, in pursuit of the ideal design for converting waves’ kinetic energy into electricity.
Wave and tidal energy is currently the most expensive of all renewables. Still, the opportunity of marine-based energy is massive. Proponents believe wave power could provide 25 percent of U.S. electricity, for example. Realizing it will require substantial investment and expanded research.
There are not many projections of ocean energy technologies to 2050, most associated technologies have low maturity levels and there is still a big uncertainty if they can be cost effective. We estimate that ocean power can grow from .0004 percent of global electricity production (i.e. around 1.1 TWh) to a range between 398-521 TWh by 2050. The result: reduction of greenhouse gases emissions by 1.4 gigatons over thirty years. Marginal costs to implement of $200-260 billion, with lifetime net operational losses of $1.1-1.4 trillion, but the investment would pave the way for longer-term expansion and emissions reductions, and wide diversity of use of renewable energy resources potential.