Columbia Power, or C-Power, is a small company with 11 direct employees, not including consultants. But it is a leader in offshore wave energy, and recently completed its Series B-2 investor funding round, just past $4 million from the DoE. We spoke to its CEO, Reenst Lesemann.
The team grew out of Oregon State University (OSU), one of the world’s centers for wave energy research, with most of the company’s engineers being alumni.
C-Power’s initial focus was utility-scale power, or the high-power segment as Lesemann calls it, which would range from a few hundred kW to MW-scale per installation. That remains a goal, but a 2016 Department of Defense project shifted the company’s focus to distributed ocean power, also known as the low-power segment.
Unlike the utility sector, which is advanced and highly competitive from all angles, off-grid ocean energy remains quite backward – it is still dominated by hand-operated fuel generators and single-use batteries. All sorts of modern concepts like AI, robotics and digitalization, which have become the norm on land, are absent at sea. Decarbonizing offshore operations is uncharted territory.
The company cites defense and research as two main market opportunities – both with extensive facilities such as sensors and unmanned vehicles that are expensive to send a ship to supply. “An ROV support vessel costs $50,000 per day, and the electricity from it effectively costs $1,000 per kWh,” observes Lesemann.
Although wave energy is on the surface, it is only a matter of wiring to power underwater robotics and other equipment, even at the bottom of the sea.
C-Power characterizes the ocean as a “power desert” and repeats the maxim of one of its customers: “The problem is always getting the power in and the data out.” So it’s not just about power supply, but also remote control integration with real-time data communication – without the need for so many ships, rigs and other supporting services.
Besides the power generation itself, the designs emphasize remote control and data collection. “You can think of an AOPS as a charging station, data server and cell tower combined,” says Lesemann, who states that the Saab Sabretooth AUV/ROV vessel will be supported by all three features, and that “the SeaRay was the missing piece of the puzzle to unlock an autonomous, digital and electric future”.
C-Power has developed several Offshore Offshore Power System (AOPS) designs ranging from 1kW to 20kW and completed projects, with each system deployed at a facility in Hawaii being transported in two shipping containers. The company now claims to be the world leader in the AOPS field.
C-Power’s first AOPS product, built in 2016.
Since then the k.75 SeaRay, a smaller 750 watt offering has been designed, with its first delivery to a customer last month, but the main offerings are the k2 and k20 – 2kW and 20kW – both deployed in Hawaii. test site, where a Sabretooth will be supported, as well as a methane emissions sensor, a Fugro seabed data collection system and a BioSonics underwater environmental monitoring system.
It’s at the low-power end that C-Power is currently marketing, but it’s also designing a 200kW StingRay design that it wants to complete next year. This broader offering won’t have all of SeaRay’s focus on digital communications.
A 0.75 kW SeaRay delivered to a customer in January.
The Department of Defense isn’t alone in supporting C-Power SeaRay systems: the Department of Energy’s Office of Water Power Technologies is working with the company, alongside the US Navy. Previously, the company has also won competitive research grants from the Scottish Government. When asked who he would most like to convince, Lesemann replied – “everyone”, but especially governments.
Asked about the components of C-Power’s machines, Lesemann said that the generators are off-the-shelf and that, for now, steel is the main material used for construction: it is not is that in the future, when the designs are fully finalized, it will be worth switching to composites such as fiberglass. Other manufacturing R&D is related to mooring lines and power electronics – at the moment the power electronics are bespoke, although most other items are off the shelf.
Naturally, all AOPS systems have battery energy storage because wave energy is variable, but Lesemann is already considering adopting hydrogen fuel cells and electrolyzers.
The StingRay WEC, an original design by C-Power, intended for microgrids.
C-Power CEO Lesemann says he fully intends to return to the utility segment in due course. Like offshore wind, large-scale wave energy is expected to emphasize large-scale, long-term sustainability, with a steady increase in design size.
Asked about the competition of offshore renewables versus floating solar, which is comparable in terms of modularity and scale, Lesemann observed that there is always room for different renewables due to variation in natural conditions. , and that offshore floating solar – as opposed to lake solar – is still just as much of a tiny, nascent sector as wave power itself. It has issues such as keeping the panels clean and a larger wind profile that wave energy does not have.
We can also consider that with different production profiles we could well see combined offshore wind-solar-wave complexes, to reduce the need for long-term storage. Wave energy is fairly constant, but there are seasonal variations – more power in winter.
Wave energy, unlike wind, does not have a wake effect by draining energy from its medium – much more power can be squeezed into a square kilometer this way, which could be significant for the North Sea and other places where space even for offshore wind is limited.
Asked about the ingrained advantage of scale, funding, familiarity and research that wind and solar have over wind power, Lesemann pointed to the buoy system that has been around for decades and has provided decades of information on the energy available in the waves on the world’s seas. This is a distinct advantage over wind and tides, which require careful study.