Wave Power – A Simple Analysis

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version Share this

Will wave power save us?

Big Ideas: 
  • Waves of any sort move energy, but not matter, from one place to another.

Energy required to disturb the surface of water:

Before we ask how much power we can extract from waves, we have to estimate how much energy there is in a wave. Consider a moving disturbance in the surface of a body of water that looks something like this:

The energy required to create this disturbance is just the work done in moving the water that was in the trough of the wave up to the crest of the wave. Thus a body of water height h, width w and length L has been moved vertically up a distance h (centre-of-mass to centre-of-mass).


If the density of water is ρ then the mass m involved in the move is ρwhL. As the work done W to raise this mass a height h is mgh,

$ W = \rho g w h^2 L $

Power in a wave-train

In the open ocean such disturbances usually occur repetitively, with a frequency f and a spacing λ, i.e. the speed of the waves, v = f λ. If the disturbances are packed together, λ = 2w.


We won’t worry about the unnatural shape of the waves for now. Rectangles are easier to deal with than real wave shapes.

If we have some kind of energy absorber at the end of this wave train capable of using waver power to generate, say, electricity, the rate at which waver energy crosses this absorber is

$ P = \rho g w h^2 L f = \rho g (\dfrac{1}{2} \lambda ) h^2 L f = \dfrac{1}{2} \rho g h^2 L v $

Consider a typical ocean wave train: h = 1 m, λ = 10 m, f = 0.1 Hz (period = 10 s), i.e. v = 1 m/s.

Assume the energy absorber is L = 10 m long, typical for such an installation:

$ P = \dfrac{1}{2} (1000 \textnormal{ kg/m}^3)(10 \textnormal{m/s}^2)(1 \textnormal{ m})^2 (10 \textnormal{ m})(1 \textnormal{ m/s}) = 50,000 \textnormal{ W , i.e. 50 kW} $

Although a crude approximation, this result is very close to that obtained with a much more sophisticated water-wave model. It shows that a significant amounts of power are potentially available in water waves. However, one must remember that 50 kW from this 10-metre size device would only service the energy needs of a few single-family dwelling. And we haven’t said anything yet about how this power can be extracted1.

For real current wave data, suitable for use in student projects, see the U.S. NOAA National Data Buoy Center. Zoom in on a buoy and click to see current conditions2.



Post new comment

Please note that these comments are moderated and reviewed before publishing.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

a place of mind, The University of British Columbia

C21: Physics Teaching for the 21st Century
UBC Department of Physics & Astronomy
6224 Agricultural Road
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1
Tel 604.822.3675
Fax 604.822.5324

Emergency Procedures | Accessibility | Contact UBC | © Copyright The University of British Columbia