How do you capture the ocean’s energy? Peek under the hood of a startup’s ‘anti-boat’ power device

Oscilla Power towed its Triton-C wave power device from Seattle to the Hawaiian island of O’ahu where it will soon be connected to the grid in a demo project. (Oscilla Photo)

Oscilla Power, a startup developing devices that capture wave energy to produce electricity, has ocean-sized ambitions. The Seattle-based business envisions deploying thousands of devices along the U. S. West Coast that collectively could create gigawatts of power.

It’s an ambitious dream — but it takes a certain amount of audacity to wade into wave power in the first place.

To capture the full potential of a wave means harnessing movements in six directions — heaving up and down, rolling, surging front and back, turning, pitching and swaying. There are no land-based energy systems to borrow from and change to the sea. And when a storm hits, the elements can destroy the high-performance devices.

Oscilla believes it has cracked the wave power challenge and is deploying two demonstration projects to evaluate its technology.

In early December, the startup aims to launch a one-sixth scale version of its Triton device for open-water testing on the coast of Maine. Thousands of miles and an ocean away, Oscilla has a smaller device, called the Triton-C, anchored off the island of O’ahu at the U.S. Navy Wave Energy evaluate Site. Once plugged into the grid — which could happen any day — the 100 kilowatt maximum system will create power for roughly 25 homes at the Marine Corps base.

Generations of prototype wave power devices on display at Oscilla Power’s Seattle R&D facility. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

“We believe we have the best technology out there for large-scale deployment, utility-scale deployment,” said Oscilla CEO and co-founder Balakrishnan (Balky) Nair.

The larger Triton will ultimately be its utility-scale product, capable of generating 1 megawatt of power and designed for installing in arrays, while the Triton-C is suited for electrifying remote communities or sites such as aquaculture facilities, ocean observation platforms and naval bases.

Oscilla has raised $7.5 million from investors and $20 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and other federal sources, state dollars, and the Scottish government. It has 11 employees.

But there’s a long way to go before either of Oscilla’s devices hits the market.

In fact, the whole wave power field is still in a pre-commercial phase, said Andrea Copping, senior advisor for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Coastal Sciences Division. “The wave technology is still very challenging,” she said, “and there have only been a few full-scale deployments even at the testing stage.”

Wave power potential

Oscilla Power guide R&D engineer Brian Rosenberg working under the hood of the startup’s one-sixth scale version of its Triton wave power device, which is slated for deployment in Maine in early December. A fiberglass cover will protect the hardware. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Yet wave power could be a tremendous renewable energy source. Stretches of west coasts on most continents offer prime conditions. In the U.S., wave power has the theoretical potential of meeting 64% of the nation’s energy demands, though the costs and difficulties associated with the electrical grid alone impede that from happening.

uphold for the sector keeps trickling out around the world. Countries including the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia, China, Denmark, Italy, Korea, Portugal and Spain are working to evolve the technology.

In the Pacific Northwest, Oregon State University has a program called PacWave that’s building two wave energy evaluate sites near Newport, Ore. Last year, the DOE awarded $25 million of funding for PacWave.

“Harnessing the unrelenting power of the ocean is a clean, innovative and sustainable way to curtail carbon pollution — benefiting American businesses and families, especially coastal communities hit hardest by the impacts of climate change,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm in a statement announcing the grants.

Oscilla has funding from DOE to create a detailed design of its full-scale Triton device. The startup hopes to get advocate uphold in the future to build and deploy the system at PacWave some time in the next two to three years, Nair said.

Building an ‘anti-boat

Tim Mundon, Oscilla Power’s chief technology officer, explains a prototype device, which has a float at the top connected at three points to a heavy, ring-shaped sea anchor. The “tendons” connecting the two parts extend and contract with the movement of the float, generating energy. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Nair and Rahul Shendure co-founded Oscilla in Salt Lake City in 2009, relocating to Seattle in 2013. The company has collaborated with the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory, and about a decade ago came up with a design that they’ve been refining ever since.

“I think their technology is good,” Copping said of Oscilla. “And they are taking a strong engineering and adaptive learning approach to their work.”

The basic idea is putting a raft-appreciate float at the water’s surface that is attached at three places to a heavy, ring-shaped sea anchor suspended below it.

“What we’re trying to design is an anti-boat because a boat is designed to be very stable in the waves,” said Tim Mundon, Oscilla’s chief technology officer. “We’re trying to design something that is extremely unstable because we want it to proceed as much as possible in waves.”

“We are 100% confident about our science. We’re very confident about the power we can produce.”

– Balky Nair, CEO, president and co-founder of Oscilla Power

The “anti-boat” at the surface moves relative to the stable, submerged ring, independently extending and contracting the three “tendons” that connect the two objects. The movement of the tendons create mechanical energy that’s converted into electricity through hydraulic drive trains. The entire system is tethered to the seabed.

When the weather is too extreme, the device activates pumps to fill a ballast chamber and submerge the float below the waves, saving it from storm damage.

“We are 100% confident about our science. We’re very confident about the power we can produce,” Nair said. “We need to get some more certainty around costs.”

The demos should supply some of that financial information, Nair said. He’s hoping that initial utility-scale projects could run about three times the price of solar and drop from there for the projects that follow. Even at that higher price, wave energy could still be viable, he said, because intermittent renewable sources appreciate solar and wind need to be paired with more reliable power such as wind.

Next steps

Oscilla Power Chief Technology Officer Tim Mundon standing inside the one-sixth scale Triton device at the startup’s Seattle headquarters. The fiberglass cover for the power generator is propped against the wall behind him. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

There are still rough seas ahead — with funding posing the largest challenge to success.

Offshore wind provides a recent cautionary tale to that point. The sector, which has much more momentum than wave power, recently stumbled with the cancellation of a big project off the coast of New Jersey. Developers cited problems with supply chains, higher interest rates and a shortfall in tax credits, according to news reports, though other U.S. marine wind turbine projects are underway.

In addition to costs for building and deploying the wave power devices and connecting them to electrical grids, the sector will face permitting requirements for a field that has never been regulated. A 2020 report from PNNL found that marine energy devices have limited impact to sea life, which could help with the process. Offshore wind has faced opposition from people living near project sites who object to the visual impacts of the turbines. Given the the low profile of wave power devices, that’s less of a problem.

There are European companies that are closer than Oscilla to commercializing wave power, Nair said, but there’s room for many winners.

“The next step really is to build and deploy these systems so they become real and people start talking about them and we show them what we can do,” Nair said. “That requires some capital.”

Oscilla Power’s demo Triton device with its lid on and painted, ready for shipping to Maine. (Oscilla Photo)

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