The company, which is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, has developed an oceangoing device that generates sustainable energy by converting wave power to electricity, even under extreme sea conditions. Think of it as an offshore wind turbine, but with waves supplying the juice. “Sustainability is the driver of the entire project,” says CalWave Chief Operating Officer Dan Petcovic. “If you want a net-zero future, clean-energy generation is where that all starts.”
CalWave recently deployed its first unit in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego. Watch the video to learn more about how CalWave is working to address the effects of climate change.
Marcus Lehmann, Cofounder and CEO, CalWave Power Technologies: Wave power is the largest unused renewable resource of wind and solar. We saw that there’s an enormous gap there, that we don’t have the technology yet to harness all that unused wave power, and so that’s the main mission for us: to unlock that enormous resource.
Surfing as a teenager, I learned how much power is in the resource, how the waves can throw you around out of nowhere. You think it’s a calm day, and then, suddenly, you have a huge wave coming out of nowhere. That fascination for the resource and its power taught me a lot.
CalWave hopes to unlock that enormous resource of ocean energy, the largest unused resource at the moment. That would help us to avoid the devastating effects of climate change that we are seeing progressing. The electricity sector is still the largest contributor to our greenhouse gas emissions. With that, it’s really important that, as quickly as we can, we fully decarbonize that sector.
Dan Petcovic, COO, CalWave Power Technologies: Sustainability is the driver of the entire project. If you want a net-zero future, clean-energy generation is where that all starts.”
Lehmann: One of the main things that has held the industry back so far is the lack of an architecture that is the replicate of what we see in the modern wind turbine—that means a technology that can achieve high performance as well as autonomous shutdown at the same time. That ability to shut it down autonomously in storm conditions is especially critical for wave power, where these storms are very severe at times, significantly more severe than a solar or wind farm would experience.
This is our first oceangoing unit funded by a contract with the Department of Energy since 2017. It’s an equivalent to an offshore wind turbine. It’s one compact unit that will be deployed and anchored, and our system operates fully submerged.
Thomas Boerner, Cofounder and Chief Technology Officer, CalWave Power Technologies: The device is revolutionary in a couple of aspects. First, it’s operating fully submerged underneath the water surface. That allows the device to absorb energy from multiple degrees of freedom. The second novel feature is that we have something integrated called a geometry-control mechanism. Rather than having the design set as is, once it’s manufactured, we have integrated a mechanism that allows us to change the geometry of our absorber body, so not only small waves can be efficiently absorbed, but even in sea states that entail very large waves, the device can still operate very efficiently and safely.
Petcovic: As a wave passes over the top, you get a pressure wave that causes motion relative to the sea floor. With our anchors on the sea floor, we convert that relative motion to power.
Lehmann: In the very beginning, we had to understand the fluid dynamics of the waves. We had a wave tank at UC Berkeley, and that gave us the chance to experiment. That was that initial concept and was more of a mathematical model, but then the tank allowed us to build prototypes; test them; and show the functionalities and, mostly, the performance—how effectively can we extract energy and then turn it into power.
The deployment in San Diego is the biggest step we’ve been working toward since the inception of CalWave. We’ve done a lot of preparation, scale testing, simulations. But to actually prove it in the field—we call that the technology-readiness level in a representative environment—that’s the major hurdle. To actually be out in the ocean—we can’t just turn off and go home for the weekend; it’s going to continue to operate—that was a big milestone for us.
This open-ocean test was so important for us to make sure that everything is coming together. This is a novel system, so it has different parts. But to prove the entire project as a whole—that we can install it, we can operate it—it achieves the performance as intended.
Petcovic: Five years down the line, we would like to see a utility-scale, full-size deployed system in the water generating power and being sold to a power grid. Then, as we look out further, we would like to see farms of systems similar to offshore wind farms.
Lehmann: No one really has demonstrated a technology like ours where we operate fully submerged and extract energy from all degrees of freedom and achieve a high performance. At the same time with that architecture, we can autonomously shut down the system. This will be the first time that a system of that architecture will be demonstrated offshore and in California.
Petcovic: I have a 2-month-old son at home. I look at the future that he has to inherit from us, and I would like to be able to say I was part of the solution and that I spent my life’s work trying to build something to give a better future to him and his generation.