Promise of the Sea

 

In the not-too-distant future, when some Oregon residents plug their laptops into an electrical outlet they could be using juice generated by the fierce waves that roll shoreward along the Pacific Northwest coast.

An early step toward this possibility is scheduled to happen next month when a barge will carry a 260-ton buoy to a mooring about two-and-a-half miles offshore from the town of Reedsport. When the buoy floats over incoming swells, wave action moves an oscillating shaft up and down, driving a generator to produce electricity. (Here’s a video that shows how it works). 

In a few years the buoy should be joined by nine others, creating a floating power station capable of spitting out 1.5 megawatts of electricity (enough to feed about 1,000 homes), according to Ocean Power Technologies, the New Jersey company that developed it. While a fractional contributor to Oregon’s energy needs, when completed the seaborne station will become the first commercially licensed wave-energy operation in the country.The possibilities of wave-energy, which has a minor carbon footprint and is, like sun and wind, essentially limitless , are attractive to clean energy advocates (see our 2007 story "Testing the Waters"). And the Pacific Northwest is an aquatic powerhouse that could, in theory, generate between 40 and 70 kilowatts of power for every three feet of coastline, according to the Department of Energy. But few clean energy sources are without drawbacks (ask anyone who’s plucked the headless carcasses of birds from the feet of wind turbines). The downsides of wave-energy technology include the potential to alter currents, pollute the sea, and host “biofoulers” such as mussels and algae (read this HCN blog “This’ll buoy your day” for the full breakdown from a 2010 DOE report).

In Oregon, coastal leaders have raised concerns about how wave-energy development could impact fisheries. During a set of public meetings, residents also worried that wind-energy devices might affect coastal views, says Paul Klarin, marine affairs coordinator with the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.

The state is now outlining areas suitable for installing ocean-based power stations with a focus on protecting marine reserves, commercial and recreational fishing areas, and views, says Klarin. A draft plan should be provided to Oregon’s Land Conservation and Development Commission by the end of the year.

Developments in Oregon are encouraging but research into wave-energy is still relatively embryonic. The technology is costly to build and research into how different types of wave-energy converters perform in various conditions, including the hefty waves that batter the Oregon coast, is ongoing.

Researchers from Oregon State University’s Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center are using a $1.5 million testing system moored offshore of Newport, Oregon, to test how different types of wave-energy generators perform in various ocean conditions. The first model to be given the once-over is a device developed in collaboration between Industrial Research Ltd, a New Zealand research institute, and private company Power Projects, also in New Zealand.

“We’re still trying to figure out what will happen when some of these devices have to stand up to 50-foot waves,” said Sean Moran, ocean test facilities manager at the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, in a statement. For its part, Ocean Power Technologies maintains that its system can survive a 100-year storm.

As seafarers, surfers and fishermen know the ocean is a capricious force. But if future wave-energy devices can withstand a wet and heavy Pacific Ocean roughhousing, while pumping cost-effective electricity to the mainland, they could prove to be a valuable addition to the West’s renewable energy portfolio.

Brendon Bosworth is a High Country News intern.

Image: waves break near the lighthouse at Yaquina Head, Oregon. Courtesy Walter Siegmund.