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Wave Energy Prize

Department of Energy (DOE)



The Wave Energy Prize is an 18-month design-build-test prize competition that aims to:

  • spur game-changing performance enhancements to wave energy converters (WECs);
  • provide a pathway to sweeping cost reductions;
  • mobilize new and existing talent;
  • provide an opportunity for apples-to-apples WEC testing and evaluation;
  • increase the visibility and attract potential investors; and
  • successfully enable the top performers to become viable and competitive industry members.

The Wave Energy Prize will double the state-of-the-art performance of WECs, specifically the energy captured per unit structural cost of these devices.

Wave Energy Prize

The Maneuvering and Seakeeping Basin at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division in Carderock, Md., where the final round of testing of 1/20th scale wave energy converters was held. (Photo courtesy of NSWC Carderock Division)

With more than 50 percent of the U.S. population living within 50 miles of coastlines, there is vast potential to provide clean, renewable electricity to communities and cities in the United States using wave energy. It is estimated that the technically recoverable wave energy resource is approximately 900-1,200 terawatt hours (TWh) per year. Developing just a small fraction of the available wave energy resource could allow for millions of American homes to be powered with this clean, reliable form of energy. For context, approximately 90,000 homes could be powered by 1 TWh per year. Extracting just 5 percent of the technical resource potential could result in wave energy powering 5 million American homes.


The Wave Energy Prize has successfully mobilized both new and existing talent through the challenge, with engineers, developers and builders from across the country having thrown their hats in the ring. Participants include people who represent universities, small companies, more established players in wave energy and independent collaborations. Also, through the Marketplace, the competition has provided an online forum for external interested parties to collaborate with participating teams.

Detailed prize structure

The Wave Energy Prize is divided into three phases (design, build, and test) separated by four technology gates as shown and described below:

Design: For the first part of the design phase, participants were required to submit detailed

A chart depicts the structure of the Wave Energy Prize, detailing the timeline from concept and design to test and award.

technical submissions describing their WEC concepts. The judging panel evaluated these submissions according to the Technology Performance Level rubric developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and selected up to 20 qualified teams. These teams were then tasked with building 1/50th scale prototypes of their WEC concepts, numerically modeling their performance and developing detailed build plans for 1/20th scale prototypes. Qualified teams were required to test their 1/50th scale prototypes in 31 different sea states at one of five small-scale testing facilities (University of Iowa, University of Maine, University of Michigan, Stevens Institute of Technology and Oregon State University) across the country. The judging panel then evaluated device performance, numerical modeling results and build plans to select nine finalist and two alternate teams. The judging panel then selected up to ten finalists and two alternates from the qualified teams.

Build: Finalist and alternate teams were tasked with building 1/20th scale prototypes of their WEC concepts. Finalists were given up to $125,000 and alternates $25,000 to build these prototypes, with alternates becoming eligible for up to $125,000 were they to become finalists. Each team was paired with a data analyst from either the National Renewable Energy Laboratory or Sandia National Laboratories. Finalists and alternates worked with engineers at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division and their assigned data analysts to come up with comprehensive test and evaluation plans to ensure a successful testing campaign at the Carderock Maneuvering and Seakeeping (MASK) Basin. The judging panel then selected nine finalist teams to proceed to testing at the MASK Basin starting August 2016.

Test: Each finalist team has been given one week on site at Carderock to prepare for testing and then one week of testing time in the MASK Basin. The test is to determine whether their 1/20th scale devices are double the state-of-the-art performance of WECs and thus eligible to win the grand prize. If a team becomes eligible to win the grand prize, their WEC device's performance will be further evaluated to account for other important energy capture, reliability and survivability metrics using proxy measurements collected during MASK Basin testing. The testing program will provide the Department of Energy (DOE) and investors with apples-to-apples comparisons of WEC device techno-economic performance when operating in real ocean conditions.

Administrators and partners

DOE's Water Power Program, along with a contracted prize administration team comprised of Ricardo, Inc., JZ Consulting, and Polaris Strategic Communications; technical experts from Sandia National Laboratories and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; and staff at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division are responsible for implementing the prize design, build, and test phases.

DOE also has partnered with various branches of the Department of the Navy to successfully execute the challenge. The Office of Naval Research has provided funds to develop the technologies and capabilities required to ensure fair and rigorous testing in the MASK Basin; the Naval Surface Warfare Center has provided in-kind support for the Judging Panel and reduced facility costs; and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Environment has provided support to test three of the finalists in the MASK Basin.

The prize team also created a two-person independent expert review panel of prize and challenge experts—one from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and one formerly of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—that, during go/no-go meetings for the challenge, provided guidance to the prize team on all aspects of the project, including testing program logistics, communications and outreach, and event planning.


The Wave Energy Prize has provided a thoughtful package of incentives to attract developers to compete and allow them the opportunity to reach their full potential and meet the goal of doubling the state of the art performance:

  • A total of $2.25 million is reserved for the prize purse ($1.5 million grand prize, $500,000 for second place and $250,000 for third place)
  • Seed funding for up to 10 finalists ($125,000 each) and alternates ($25,000 each)
  • Small-scale testing to all qualified teams valued at close to $45,000 per team
  • Testing for all finalists at the MASK Basin at Carderock valued at $180,000-$200,000 per test
  • The creation of a team-building platform (the Marketplace) located on the competition website, where teams can solicit expert needs, or experts can seek out teams
  • An open source numerical software package, Wave Energy Converter Simulation (WEC-Sim) developed and supported by the DOE national labs, and supporting software provided for free by MathWorks for use by all qualified teams choosing to use it for the duration of the competition
  • A team summit with opportunities to engage with technical experts, investors, media, and government


The challenge is not yet complete, but there have been numerous successes so far in attracting new and existing players to wave energy; having teams successfully reach aggressive technical milestones; bringing forward innovations across a range of WEC device types; generating significant publicity; and building technical capacity to test WECs at testing facilities across the country.

With an aggressive communications and outreach strategy, 92 teams registered for the competition, three times more than expected. Of these, 66 turned in technical submissions, which were evaluated by a panel of expert judges to identify 20 qualified teams. Most teams that registered were not previously known to DOE. Seventeen of the 20 qualified teams completed the initial small-scale testing phase, and out of the nine finalists and two alternates, only two have received any funding from DOE in the past.

Most of the teams have met the aggressive timelines for the challenge. For example, to meet the requirements for Technology Gate 2, the qualified teams built 1/50th scale model devices, tested them at university facilities around the country and conducted significant numerical modeling studies in just four months. As of June 2016, and as can be seen on the Team Updates webpage, finalists and alternates have made significant progress in designing, building, and testing their 1/20th scale devices. This puts the challenge in a great position to achieve its remaining objectives.

The finalists and alternates have put forward diverse WEC designs, which include two submerged areal absorbers, four point absorbers, two attenuators and three terminators. And in these designs, DOE is already seeing technical innovations in the areas of geometry, materials, power conversion and controls. Some of these include:

  • adaptive sea-state-to-sea-state control,
  • wave-to-wave control,
  • power absorption in multiple degrees of freedom,
  • optimized float shapes and dimensions for energy absorption for broad bandwidth of wave frequencies,
  • survival strategies such as submerging beneath the surface for extreme storms,
  • use of structures and materials that are cost effective to manufacture, and
  • flexible membranes that react to the wave pressure over a broad area.

The public's awareness of wave energy is increasing because of the teams' efforts in the challenge. In just over a year, more than 100 news stories have featured the competition, including channels like Popular Science, The Weather Channel and National Geographic. The website has hosted more than 23,000 visitors, and its social media channels have logged more than a half million impressions. This increased awareness of the potential contribution of wave energy to the nation's renewable energy mix will exist long after the challenge ends and will likely set the stage for future private-sector investments and government funding opportunities.

In the process of executing the testing program, the small-scale testing facilities (University of Iowa, University of Maine, University of Michigan, Stevens Institute of Technology and Oregon State University) and the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division have gained significant technical capabilities and capacities to rigorously test WECs.

Areas of Excellence

Area of Excellence #1: "Identify Goal and Outcome Metrics"

There needs to be a step change in the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of wave energy to put it on a path to commercialization as an electricity generation source in large-scale utility markets in the next 15 to 20 years. It is the goal of the challenge to achieve that step change: a doubling of the state-of-the-art performance of WECs, as measured through their energy absorbed per unit structural cost.

Finalists and alternates from the Wave Energy Prize sand on a platform overlooking a wave pool.

Finalists and alternates a tour the MASK Basin. (Credit: NSWC Carderock Division)

LCOE is the commonly accepted metric that points to the commercial viability of a source of energy. LCOE allows for comparisons of the costs of electricity produced by different means and sources such as solar, wind, fossil and so on. But LCOE is a complicated metric, and its value reflects many different variables, from details of capital expenditures to various factors influencing operational expenditures. Due to limited experience in building and operating WECs, estimates of these cost details have a high degree of uncertainty, and for low Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs), LCOE may not be an appropriate metric to judge device or system potential. In addition, it's hard to test for a bunch of variables in a prize competition given limited testing resources and time constraints. The prize team sought to design a simple metric that could best measure the relevant parameters of an early maturity yet techno-economically viable system when operating in real ocean conditions. Thus, the team created a simplified proxy metric for LCOE that would target key components of LCOE to show WEC device potential.

Given that wave energy converters (WECs) are early maturity technologies, there was no standardized way of testing diverse WECs to evaluate their performance before the competition. Thus, the key metric of the challenge had to satisfy the following requirements:

  • To be able to objectively quantify the potential of high techno-economic performance to bring about a step change improvement over the state of the art
  • To be able to quantify the state of the art with respect to this fundamental performance metric
  • To fully embrace the fair and accountable assessment of fundamentally new WEC concepts (potentially leading to disruptive technology innovation), innovations not foreseeable at the onset of the competition

Based on these requirements, the technical experts at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories worked with DOE and the prize administration team to develop a new metric to measure the state-of-the-art performance of WECs and the ACE (Average Climate Capture Width per Characteristic Capital Expenditure). ACE represents the energy captured per unit structural cost of WECs. This is a proxy metric for LCOE. Just like LCOE is a cost-to-benefit metric ($/kWh), ACE is a benefit-to-cost metric that focuses on a key component that drives LCOE for WECs, namely structural cost. The denominator of ACE is a measure of the structural cost of the device, evaluated based on technical drawings, materials used and analytical load estimation on the structure device.

The state-of-the-art value for ACE is 1.5 meters per million dollars (1.5m/$M). A finalist becomes eligible to win the $1.5 million grand prize if they double ACE to 3m/$M during the final round of testing at the MASK Basin in Carderock.

The prize team still believed that ACE, while a significant step in the right direction for evaluating the performance of WECs, did not provide full confidence in WECs that could meet the true challenge of performing at reasonable cost in the open ocean. Thus, the prize team decided to evaluate teams eligible to win the grand prize according to a metric called Hydrodynamic Performance Quality (HPQ) which accounts for other important energy capture, reliability and survivability metrics using proxy measurements collected during MASK Basin testing. The teams that surpass the 3m/$M threshold will be ranked by their HPQ, and the team with the highest HPQ will win the $1.5 million grand prize.

Area of Excellence #2: "Obtain Agency Clearance"

The DOE prize team in the Water Power Program engaged with senior leadership from the very inception of the idea to run a prize competition. Office leadership was briefed during the development of the challenge, including on topics such as goals, rules, testing program, judging process and communications and outreach plan. General Counsel (GC) informed the development of the rules, as well as the terms and conditions.

The DOE prize team also worked with GC from the very beginning of drafting the funding opportunity announcement for a prize administration team. GC helped the team prepare the Federal Register Notice in time for the announcement of the launch of the prize competition.

Given that the prize administration team was selected under a financial assistance agreement, the DOE contracting officer has been engaged in each important phase, especially in the go/no-go decisions where the team performed a rigorous evaluation of the prize continuation application after the registration period closed and after the end of the 1/50th scale testing program. The DOE National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) staff, also part of the prize team, have ensured that all actions taken by participants during the competition meet the requirements of NEPA.

Area of Excellence #3: "Execute the Communications Plan"

The Wave Energy Prize has used several approaches to successfully publicize the prize, mobilize potential participants and create a strong following for the competition, including the following:

  • Emailing previous applicants to and inquirers of Water Power Program funding opportunities
  • Creating a website that allows for streamlined updates, as well as a back end that participants can use to engage with the prize administration team and DOE
  • Creating the Marketplace, a skill-sharing platform that promoted team-building, on the website
  • Creating and disseminating a monthly newsletter that answered frequently asked questions and presented technical details in simple language, along with communicating what DOE is striving to achieve
  • Creating a strong social media presence that has created a large following for the competition
  • Training participants on communications, outreach, and media training
  • Disseminating publicly important data generated from the competition

Further, teams have been required per the rules to communicate publicly on the website about their progress and to speak about the challenge and their participation in their own words. Participants put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into a competition, and it is important to shed light on their stories and why they are participating.

Below are details on how the prize team has worked to ensure a successfully executed communications plan.

Strong relationships with different communications teams in DOE: The Wave Energy Prize has leveraged the fact that different communications teams within DOE have different audiences and outlets, and the prize team has tailored content to the audiences reached by different communications teams. Both the DOE prize team and the prize administration team have worked to understand how different communications teams in DOE from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and DOE Public Affairs work and what their protocols are.

Synergistic communications plans and cross-promotion: The Wave Energy Prize is working off a communications and outreach plan in which DOE prize team communications and prize administration team communications are synergistic, and there is a clear delineation of the kinds of communications that come from each of the two teams. All communications that the DOE prize team and the prize administration team put out are planned one month in advance to ensure momentum. Media coverage, monthly newsletters and blogs and team features come from the prize administration team; synthesis and reflection pieces are written by the DOE prize team; and press releases at key stages of the competition are published by both teams. The prize administration team promotes all communications relating to the prize coming from any DOE office.

Writing for multiple audiences and simple communication: The Wave Energy Prize aims to mobilize new and existing talent, increase visibility and attract potential investors. To achieve these objectives, it has been important to communicate goals, requirements, processes and progress in the simplest language possible, while being careful not to dilute the technical details the prize team worked hard to solidify. The prize team has been able to create content for those with varying degrees of interest and expertise, as described below.

The goal of the Wave Energy Prize is to double the state-of-the-art performance of wave energy converters as measured through a metric called ACE, short for average climate capture width per characteristic capital expenditure—clearly a mouthful, and entirely jargon. ACE is a measure of the effectiveness of a WEC at absorbing power from the incident wave energy field divided by a measure of the capital expenditure in commercial production of the load bearing device structure. So how can that be said simply?

Here is how this metric is communicated to the public: "ACE is determined by dividing, in essence, the wave energy extraction efficiency of a wave energy converter by its structural cost." This language is simple enough that makes the key metric of the Wave Energy Prize understandable to many more people than just experts in wave energy. And the prize team has been directing those interested in more of the details to detailed blog posts with more technical depth.

Tracking impact and creating an archive: The prize administration team has tracked all key statistics pointing to the impact of communications efforts, including visitor numbers; click-through rates; time spent on webpages; geographic location; browser type; social media impressions on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter; and so on. The prize administration team provides monthly reports to the DOE prize team on these statistics, and changes to communications plans are made accordingly.

Also, since Wave Energy Prize is unfolding over 18 months, the DOE prize team and prize administration team archive all outreach and media content on the Newsroom page of the competition website, creating a narrative arc for those interested.

The DOE Wave Energy Prize won GSA's Five Years of Excellence in Federal Challenge & Prize Competition Award for Best Challenge Engagement Strategy, and its communications plan was a key part of its success. The Wave Energy Prize has tracked analytics on its various social media platforms and its website, and developed a two-track communications plan, one executed by the contractor selected to administer the prize, and one executed by the program-level agency team.

Area of Excellence #4: "Accept Solutions"

Registration and eligibility: The Wave Energy Prize registration period started April 27, 2015, and the end date was extended from June 15, 2015, to June 30, 2015, to maximize the number of teams entering the prize funnel. During this extended window, registration jumped from 50 teams on June 15 to 92 on June 30.

The terms and conditions specified the eligibility and participation requirements per the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act. These requirements spanned indemnification and liability, insurance, and citizenship or private company incorporation, among other things. When participants registered, they were required to provide documentation to attest to their eligibility, allowing the prize administration team to only put the submissions eligible to win through the time-intensive judging process.

Receiving and managing solutions: Those participants making it through the Wave Energy Prize funnel will have submitted electronic documentation (including writing and drawings), codes and numerical modeling output and device prototypes over the course of the competition. All along, participants have been provided clear guidance on how and when to submit their solutions, and the prize team has ensured that any and all solutions provided by teams are dealt with per the terms and conditions. The prize administration team has come up with detailed plans for who on the prize team handles what submission and when. Below are additional steps and policies put in place to ensure successful submissions from participants:

  • Participants submit all electronic documents on the Wave Energy Prize website back end—custom-built for the prize based on open source software—where the judging panel is able to access them to complete their evaluations.
  • The prize administration team worked with the small-scale testing facilities to ensure the qualified teams' 1/50th scale devices were properly received.
  • For the 1/20th scale prototypes, the prize administration team worked with a third party shipping company to pick up and transfer devices from the contiguous United States to the MASK Basin in Carderock, Maryland.
  • During the entire competition, participants have been able to ask questions of the judges and technical experts—through the prize administration team—to make sure that any actions taken by the participants were allowed per the rules and testing requirements.

Nondisclosure agreements and intellectual property: The entire prize team (consisting of the DOE, prize administration team, judges, Carderock, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories) have signed or are bound by nondisclosure agreements to ensure that all intellectual property of the participants remains theirs. Further, all data and testing documentation generated during the competition will be made public on the DOE Marine and Hydrokinetic Data Repository in November 2017, one year after winners are announced. The documentation will be scrubbed of any intellectual property, such as the detailed design drawings of solutions the participants brought as their original concepts into the competition. All details have been specified in the terms and conditions.

Area of Excellence #5: "Pay Winners"

Since the Wave Energy Prize is being executed under a financial assistance agreement with the prize administration team, it is the prize administration team (contractors) that is responsible for disbursing both seed funding to the finalists and alternates and the prize purse. These funds were allocated to the prize administration team after go/no-go decisions on the continuation of the Wave Energy Prize program. The prize purse will be disbursed to the team leader(s) of the winning team(s).

Challenge Type


Given the early maturity level of the wave energy industry, the Wave Energy Prize has been structured and rules written to maximize the diversity of devices that can be tested and evaluated, and to allow for flexibility in dealing with WECs. Thousands of hours have been put in by the technical experts (National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Carderock, University of Michigan, University of Maine, University of Iowa, Stevens Institute of Technology, Oregon State University and judges) over the course of the competition to ensure the proper planning and execution of the 1/50th and 1/20th scale testing programs. This has instilled confidence in the participants of the rigor of the competition and demonstrated to industry the level of effort required to get apples-to-apples comparisons of WEC performance.

Legal Authority

America COMPETES Reauthorization Act

Challenge Website