First buoy in electrical collaboration is set to go afloat within a year off the Oregon Coast
If you've ever watched the surf crashing against the coast, you know about the power of waves. But have you ever wondered whether some of that momentum could be harnessed?
New research is finding ways to use ocean waves as a source of electricity, and the state of Oregon is poised to be a leader in developing this promising new source of clean, renewable energy.
'We are actively working to become a national leader in this industry,' says Diana Enright, who is the assistant director of the Oregon Department of Energy.
The department is part of a large-scale collaborative effort to make wave power a reality. Other players include Oregon State University, private investors and the federal government. 'The people who are involved in this are so excited,' Enright says. 'It has a lot of potential.'
Plans are under way to build an experimental wave park on the Oregon Coast, possibly off the shore of Lincoln County.
The park would consist of a group of buoys, located where ocean swells cause the surface to rise and fall regularly. The buoys capture energy from this up-and-down motion, and translate it into electricity, which is carried to shore through underwater cables.
The idea of wave power isn't new. Several experimental 'wave motors' were tested along the California coast between 1890 and 1910, but none of them was successful.
There's been a resurgence in interest in wave power over the past 10 years, particularly in Europe, where a number of wave energy projects are in development.
Energy-collection devices have been tested in the waters off Scotland and Portugal. Private companies are investing in the technology, including New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technologies, which has applied to the federal government for a siting permit for a wave park on the Oregon Coast.
Science meets the swells
The biggest push in Oregon, however, is to build a research center here, which would serve as a national test and demonstration site for future, commercially operated wave parks. 'We think this is key for the U.S. to move forward,' says Annette von Jouanne, an electrical engineering professor and the director of OSU's Motor Systems Resource Facility.
Von Jouanne began researching wave energy in 1998, along with a colleague, the late Alan Wallace. 'About eight years ago,' von Jouanne says, 'Dr. Wallace and I realized the tremendous potential that we have here at Oregon State University to explore wave energy.'
At that time, state-of-the-art facilities already existed at OSU that would make testing new wave energy technology possible. The Motor Systems Resource Facility, a high-powered lab for testing energy systems, had just been completed.
Under von Jouanne's direction, the facility was focused on renewable energy. In addition, there were the scientific resources of the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory and the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport and, most important, the Pacific Ocean nearby.
Von Jouanne explains how it all came together; it was 'all of these strategic, key facilities that we already had, plus our passion for renewables, and love for the ocean.' Simply looking out to sea provided inspiration for Wallace and von Jouanne.
'We had such respect for the energy and the heaving swells,' von Jouanne recalls, 'and we would just talk about how we could possibly, in a very respectful way, tap into that energy.'
Collaboration means a lot
Von Jouanne's work at OSU has two main thrusts.
One is to refine the technology inside energy-collecting buoys. The other is to forge a network of government agencies, coastal communities, utilities, researchers and investors that can work together to make an Oregon wave park a reality.
Currently, around the world, an array of energy-collecting bouys are in the prototype phase. Most depend on an internal compressed-air or compressed-fluid system, von Jouanne says, but OSU's Wave Energy Team is developing several 'direct drive' generator buoys, using different configurations of electrical coils and magnetic fields.
With this and so many other aspects of wave energy in the experimental stage, it will be years before coastal buoys are lighting up Oregon homes. Wave power is roughly where wind power was 10 years ago, with some significant differences.
First of all, once off the ground, wave power has the potential to generate more power than wind - 'If you think about the density of water compared to air,' von Jouanne explains, 'it is about 832 times greater.'
Second, both public and official enthusiasm for alternative power has grown immeasurably in the past 10 years.
The impetus is there to speed projects along - and this may be Oregon's biggest advantage when it comes to becoming a wave energy leader. Strong ocean swells and strong research capabilities are key, but a collaborative approach to development is what really sets Oregon apart.
'Right now, we're really leading the nation regarding the university, industry, utility and government collaboration,' von Jouanne says. 'This collaboration is unique in the world right now. … It's a tremendous collaboration.'
Other impacts identified
At the level of state government, the Oregon Department of Energy has been working with OSU for about a year through a group called People of Oregon for Wave Energy Resources, a public-private partnership that includes local governments, developers and representatives of the fishing industry.
The big question for coastal industries is, What will be the physical impact of a large number of buoys, anchored to the ocean floor, one to three miles off the coast? Will a wave park interfere with fishing, crabbing, shipping or recreation? What about marine life such as migrating whales?
By asking these questions early on, and involving both experts and community members, the Department of Energy hopes to avoid conflicts. Will wave power create local jobs? It's really too soon to tell, Department of Energy's Enright says.
If everything goes according to schedule, OSU will put its first buoy in the water in August next year. After that, a new source of renewable energy may be just beyond the horizon.