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Riding the crest of energy's future

State an early leader in deploying, testing wave energy


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE -  Phil Gilder, left, and Lorren Livingston of Ocean Power Technologies untangle an o-ring at the first Power Buoy made by Oregon Iron Works for deployment off the Oregon Coast. Below, Gilder is assisted by Mark Gartler, left.It isn’t the wild, wild west on the waves anymore, but Oregon coastal waters are still part of the frontier for the fledgling wave energy industry.

In the wake of increased solar and wind energy production, proponents of drawing electricity from the power of waves say their way will eventually be more attractive. After all, waves roll 365/24/7.

The key word: eventually.

“Are we going to do commercial (business) in 20 years? 10? 15? 30? Heck, I don’t know,” says Jason Busch, executive director of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, the industry’s state-financed, nonprofit advocacy group. “Give us five years and see where we are.”

Led by an Oregon State University effort, which recently got a boost with a $4 million federal grant, testing for the right way to create wave energy continues off the Oregon Coast. That’s also where New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technologies has received the first license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate a wave power station in the United States. The 144-foot buoy, set to be installed vertically, looks something like a baby’s rattler or the aluminum space modulator of Marvin the Martian/Bugs Bunny cartoon fame, with 30 feet showing above water.

by: COURTESY OF PAT KIGHT, OREGON SEA GRANT - Oregon State University's Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center deploys its new wave energy testing platform, the Ocean Sentinel, two miles offshore from Yaquina Head in August.  The company hoped to install it off the coast of Reedsport this month, weather permitting. It won’t be hooked up to the grid immediately or generate power for utilities, but Ocean Power hopes that occurs in the near future, says Greg Lennon, director of business development.

The average output will be 150 kilowatts, going to 1.5 megawatts with the installation of nine additional buoys. That translates to 4,100 megawatt hours — enough for 900 homes. We’re not talking high volume, yet.

“Once it’s deployed it’ll help validate the technology,” Lennon says, referring specifically to rack-and-pinion technology. Ocean Power has shifted from hydraulics used on devices off the shores of Scotland to its new direct-drive system, which would prevent spillage of hydraulic liquids into the water.

Essentially the computer-equipped buoy has extended wave riders that gauge waves and adjusts an internal shaft that thrusts to create electricity. The tethered buoy would transmit electricity through a seabed cable.

“We are still working on the interconnection” to the grid, Lennon adds.

The buoy has been under construction at Oregon Iron Works in Milwaukie and Vancouver, Wash., and at Vigor Marine on Portland’s Swan Island. Funding came from the U.S. Department of Energy and PNGC Power, a Portland-based electricity generation and transmission cooperative owned by several regional utilities.

Busch says “all eyes” will be on the publicly traded Ocean Power Technologies’ venture off the Oregon Coast, including energy interests, fishers and environmentalists.

Oregon companies also players

Corvallis-based Columbia Power Technologies trails Ocean Power Technologies in developing its full-scale, floating buoy device for licensing. But it has already tested a half-scale device in Puget Sound.

“They’re moving along quickly,” Busch says.

M3 Wave, a Salem company, has received more than $1 million in commercialization grants from Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center (Oregon BEST) and Oregon Wave Energy Trust.

M3 has plans for submerged wave energy technology at depths of 50 to 100 feet below surface on the ocean floor, and wants to position itself for future scale-up funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and private investors. Its device would tap the variation in water pressure from waves to inflate and deflate airbags that turn a turbine.

Surfs up in Oregon

Various constituencies gathered in Portland recently for the Oregon Wave Energy Trust conference.

“We got in front of this opportunity as a state about six years ago, when we recognized there would be an ocean energy industry,” says Busch, a renewable energy lawyer. “It was a matter of grabbing hold of it and making it ours.”

Oregon is well-positioned to be a player in the fledging industry, he says, with world-class waves, a grid infrastructure up and down the coast and a local research presence in the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center at Oregon State University.

The role of his organization, Oregon Wave Energy Trust or OWET, is to provide support for companies to get their devices into the water and develop their technology.

“I’ve convinced myself that ocean energy can be done and done well,” Busch says. “OWET’s mission is for responsible development of ocean energy.”

OSU Research

OSU, a national leader in oceanography studies, deployed its new $1.5 million Ocean Sentinel, a testing device for wave energy, in August off Yaquina Head on the Oregon Coast.

The goal is to provide a standardized, accurate system to compare various wave energy technologies, says Sean Moran, ocean test facilities manager for OSU’s marine research center.

“We’re looking to answer some of the core questions for this industry, from an unbiased perspective,” Moran says. “We’re not concerned with a particular device. We’re testing all sorts, and what are the impacts.”

Different devices may work with different waves.

Among other research, the Ocean Sentinel is helping test a device belonging to Wave Energy Technology-New Zealand, or WET-NZ. That study will evaluate wave amplitude, device energy output, ocean currents, wind speeds, extremes of wave height and other data.

In addition, Newport and Reedsport have been chosen as possible locations of the Pacific Marine Energy Center, a planned $8 million grid-connected wave energy testing facility.

There are other U.S. testing sites, particularly in Hawaii connected to the military, off the California coast and East Coast. The U.S. Department of Energy is “focused on what we’re doing here,” Moran says.

Chasing the wind

Moran believes that a 20-year timeline is reasonable to figure out how wave energy can be developed and utilized efficiently — even with private companies like Ocean Power Technologies wanting to give it a try now.

“I think we’re 20 years behind wind,” Moran says. Generating electricity from waves has to make financial sense, given the low cost of natural gas, even with the push toward renewable energy in place of burning fossil fuels.

But there are many advantages of ocean energy.

“If we can do it cleanly, it’s clean and renewable,” he says. “A lot of sustainability elements lead me to say that this is right to pursue.”

The idea of wave energy has been around for decades, but ocean waters, including off Oregon’s coast, had not been mapped for appropriate places to do such things. Mapping has been taking place for about three years, Busch says, for the development of the Territorial Sea Plan. Soon, that will be presented to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

So is harnessing renewable energy from the ocean the, er, wave of the future?

“We’ll see,” Busch says. “We know states have renewable portfolio standards. They want renewables to come on line. Can it compete with solar? Yeah. With wind? Not yet. But then again (wind) couldn’t compete 10 to 15 years, and it was on par with natural gas until natural gas plummeted in price.”