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The Secret To Wave Power? Snakes!

There just isn't world enough and time to write about every wacky clean-energy idea that leaps off the drawing board these days, but maybe we can make an exception for the Anaconda, an intriguing project still in the lab stage at the University of Southampton, but one that might finally provide an easy and affordable way to generate electricity from ocean waves. (The link is via Julia Whitty.) Here's the nickel explanation:

Named after the snake of the same name because of its long thin shape, the Anaconda is closed at both ends and filled completely with water. It is designed to be anchored just below the sea's surface, with one end facing the oncoming waves.

A wave hitting the end squeezes it and causes a 'bulge wave' to form inside the tube. As the bulge wave runs through the tube, the initial sea wave that caused it runs along the outside of the tube at the same speed, squeezing the tube more and more and causing the bulge wave to get bigger and bigger. The bulge wave then turns a turbine fitted at the far end of the device and the power produced is fed to shore via a cable.

All your bulging-snake video needs can be found here, if that didn't make sense. So far, most countries have shown only sporadic interest in wave energy, mainly because it's tricky stuff, harnessing all that ocean motion. Scottish engineers have been building a "wave farm" off the Portuguese coast that's basically a series of, oh yes, tubes—big red steel tubes—but the whole contraption is costly and fairly inefficient. Not so with the Anaconda, which by some estimates could eventually produce electricity at only twice the cost of traditional coal-fired plants—and that's without factoring in all of coal's externalities. In theory, wave and tidal power could someday generate about 7 percent of the electricity in the United States, and upwards of 20 percent in places like Portugal, England, New Zealand, Australia, parts of the European coast, and so on—if these things take off. Not too shabby.

--Bradford Plumer