Are Flexible Decentralised Generators the Future of Wave Power?

Flexible piezoelectric designs can theoretically generate power from a wide range of movements.

Tidal power has massive potential, but also comes with massive costs and logistical issues. A new wave of tidal generator designs could solve these issues.

Author Mark Newton, 10.05.22

Translation Sarah-Indra Jungblut:

Hydropower provides about one-sixth of all our global energy – that’s more than solar, wind and other renewables combined. The majority of this comes from traditional hydroelectric dams, but offshore tidal power has become an increasing area of investment and development. 

Constantly shifting tides and rolling waves have the potential to provide huge amounts of energy, but tapping into it is not always easy. Building underwater requires extensive – and expensive – construction, while the powerful forces under the surface can stress equipment, corrode machinery and cause breakdowns.

One potential solution is to move away from older models of generators and into the field of piezoelectricity – the ability of certain materials to generate an electric charge in response to applied mechanical stress. The US-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is looking at just this and is developing a series of patented designs dubbed Distributed Embedded Energy Converter Technologies (DEEC-Tec).

These decentralised piezoelectric converters are designed to generate electricity from a much broader range of ocean wave movement than conventional approaches, while also being robust and featuring less mechanical parts. DEEC-Tecs are designed to stretch, twist, bend, expand or undergo other deformations that can then be converted into power via small distributed energy converters. These converters are simply small transducers, which use the movement of the DEEC-Tec material as their generation input. In theory, this means that wherever and whenever the DEEC-Tec is moved, energy is generated.

DEEC-Tecs could theoretically come in a number of different designs.

The benefits of this system are also expanded to maintenance and logistics. Since numerous transducers are used, there is not an overall failure if simply one stops functioning. Many of the DEEC-Tec designs are also produced from relatively cheap polymers and can be quickly installed and uninstalled, for example to avoid storms. The energy converters can also function as small sensors to provide information on the status of a DEEC-Tec, reducing maintenance schedules.

The 1.5 degree target is unattainable without a real transformation of our energy system. But how can it succeed? What are the energy sources of the future? What digital solutions are ready and where are innovations needed? And how can the transformation be driven forward?

The RESET Greenbook “Energy Transition – The Future is Networked” presents digital, innovative solutions and sheds light on the background.

Additionally, since DEEC-Tecs can generate power from a wider range of movements, they may be more suitable for coastal areas where traditional wave energy generators are unsuitable. For example, some research suggests only two percent of the world’s coastline is suitable for conventional wave hydropower. A more flexible design – both figuratively and literally – might help increase this figure, while reducing the costs of initial installation.

Several different designs are currently being researched and patented.

Currently NREL’s DEEC-Tec designs are in an early stage, and several different designs are being experimented with. Current challenges include developing new materials to reduce fatigue, create better power conversion efficiencies and improved transducer designs.

However, piezoelectric designs are not limited to tidal power. Indeed, they can generate electricity wherever there is constant and reliable movement. That could include the friction created by moving cars, the vibrations of buildings or even the movement of clothing.

Tidal Power: The New Wave of Hydroelectricity?

Hydropower is one of humanity's oldest forms of energy, but there are still vast areas of the sector left unexplored.

Energy Storage Systems: The Linchpin of the Energy Transition

Is it possible for heavily industrialized nations to create energy security with renewable power alone? Yes, it is! However, one of the most important factors in achieving this is efficient storage technologies.

A Bright Future? How the Next Generation of Solar is Overcoming its Many Challenges

Solar power is one of the best-known sources of renewable energy, but it is still only responsible for 3 percent of global electricity. What's keeping it back and how can it further develop?

A Windy Future: Can Wind Power Lead our Clean Energy Revolution?

Bob Dylan famously claimed "the answer is blowin' in the wind". Does the same apply for our growing energy and environmental crisis?

Could Dumping Corn Waste into the Deep Sea Solve our Carbon Woes?

We're already used to seeing bales of corn waste in our fields, but could they soon become a familiar sight on the ocean floor?

Seawind: Twin-Bladed Offshore Turbines That Can Weather the Toughest Storms

Offshore wind has the potential to become a huge energy resource. But tapping into it comes with many issues. A new radical design to turbine looks to change this.

How Minesto’s Underwater Planes Are Plugging Into Untapped Tidal Energy

A Swedish spin-off from car and plane manufacturer SAAB is seeking to turn underwater planes into green power producers. And it’s already proven and close to being commercially viable. How useful can it be for the world?

A Deceptively Simple Membrane Could Harvest Wave Power Across The Globe

There's another way to generate power from our oceans - and a team at the University of Edinburgh, working with researchers in Italy, have shown encouraging results from initial work.Both wave and tidal energy harvesting remain incredibly important methods for generating renewable energy from sources that don't stop at night or need wind to work.