Catch a wave

Where can North Carolina find alternative sources of energy to generate new economic opportunities as well as electrical power?

A research team led by the University of North Carolina’s Coastal Studies Institute (CSI) is looking east to the waters off the North Carolina coast for answers.

The Coastal Wave Energy Research Project, funded by the North Carolina General Assembly, investigates the potential of wave power to generate electricity in North Carolina. The research team, led by Billy Edge, a professor of civil engineering at North Carolina State University and a researcher at CSI, involves partners from the engineering colleges at NC State, North Carolina A & T University and UNC Charlotte as well as RENCI.

Research teams will work to quantify the amount of offshore wave energy available and investigate how best to harness that energy and integrate it into the power grid. They also will partner with private sector companies to build and test prototype designs in an effort to lure alternative energy R & D efforts to the state.

“The focus is to answer the question ‘Can our waters generate energy?’” said Kevin Gamiel, RENCI’s community engagement manager based at CSI. “We also want to discover what devices or systems are suitable for capturing wave power. One of the focuses will be working with companies on developing new products. That could lead to job creation.”

Gamiel will extend and enhance a three-dimensional smooth hydrodynamic particle model developed at Johns Hopkins University so it will run on RENCI’s high performance computers. The model simulates fluid flows and will be used to better understand the dynamics of waves and tides. In addition Gamiel will develop a desktop-based user interface for another 3D smooth hydrodynamic particle model called GPU SPHysics, which creates 3D models of fluid dynamics using graphics processing units (GPUs) similar to those used in game consoles. The researchers plan to use GPU SPHysics to model ocean dynamics and to test how different energy capturing devices respond to a variety of ocean conditions, said Gamiel.

RENCI Senior Scientist and Oceanographer Brian Blanton will use the ADCIRC storm surge model and the SWAN (Simulting WAves Nearshore) wave model to reanalyze 20 years of data (1979 – 1999) on wave states in waters within 20 miles of North Carolina’s coast.

Billy Edge: Project emphasizes economic development and renewable energy

Using a RENCI supercomputing cluster, the models will run at high resolution and produce output that provides detail down to one square kilometer. The wave heights in the computer models will be compared to actual wave heights and will become part of a comprehensive wave energy content analysis, said Blanton. Other variables that will be considered in determining the overall energy potential of waves include sea levels, ocean temperature and winds.

The Electric Power Research Institute estimates ocean waves’ energy potential at about 2,100 terawatt hours per year (TWh/y), for the entire U.S. coastline—enough energy to power 210 million homes consuming 10,000 kilawatt hours per year—with the Pacific Northwest and Alaskan coasts offering the most wave energy. However, no technologies can capture all that energy and actual expected energy production from wave power is about 13.3 TWh/y for the entire U.S., or enough to power about 1.3 million home for a year.

“Our area doesn’t have the highest potential, but what makes North Carolina attractive is that the continental shelf is narrow here, so it tends not to dissipate as much wave energy,” said Blanton.

The project will place much emphasis on outreach and education, and interactive displays and educational exhibits will be featured on a newly refurbished Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. At the end of the pier, a research “hut” will allow scientists to deploy instruments directly into the water and will give energy companies the opportunity to test prototype energy generating devices in the water.

“Companies that make devices to capture ocean energy will have direct access to the ocean,” said Gamiel, who is also helping design the information infrastructure for the pier’s research station. “They will be able to use this facility to install and test their devices. The focus will be on giving them the chance to create new products that could lead to job creation.”