Off Oregon's coast, researchers hope to pump electricity from surf to turf

Along Oregon's postcard coast, generations have tapped the ocean for its rich fisheries. Now, a new generation wants to tap it for electricity.

The goal is to wrest kilowatts from the Pacific Ocean waves by using small floating generators that ride the rolling swells and convert the up-and-down motion into usable volts.

In late July, New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technologies, Inc., filed for a preliminary permit with the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to anchor one of its generating buoys off Gardiner, Ore. Meanwhile, researchers at Oregon State University are working to establish a national wave-energy research and demonstration facility here off Newport.

The efforts highlight a renewed interest in the US for enlisting waves and tides in the quest for renewable energy sources and greater energy independence, specialists say.

Ocean energy is still in its infancy, specialists emphasize, and work remains to be done to make it economical enough to hook to the grid. But smaller, more powerful turbines; advances in marine cables and anchoring techniques; and other developments may allow today's power-plant designs to avoid some of the technical and environmental hurdles that plagued ocean-power proposals in the 1970s and '80s, they add.

"If you are careful in selecting sites, it can be viable for those areas and eventually cost-effective," says Andy Trenka, with the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

So far, tidal energy – which relies on the rise-and-fall of tides – appears to be garnering more interest than wave energy, which exploits the waves' rise-and-fall.

"While it's a poor choice of words, its been somewhat of a land rush in the last year or so in terms of interest in developing potential tidal energy sites," says Bryan Lee, a spokesman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C. Over the past two years, the agency has issued preliminary permits for 11 projects in Florida, New York, California, and Washington. This year, it received 11 more applications for projects in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.

One tidal project, for example, involves Verdant Power, LLC, based in Arlington, Va. This summer, the company set six windmill-like tidal turbines into the bottom of the East River in New York City. It's a stepping stone to a 10-megawatt tidal-energy plant there.

Despite a dearth of federal R&D support for wave and tidal generating technologies, money is coming in from venture capital sources as well as their more conservative brethren, notes Charles Dunleavy, chief financial officer for Ocean Power Technologies (OPT). "It isn't just the Kyoto Protocol or the high price of oil and gas," he says. "There's a greater awareness in capital markets of the need for renewable energy sources, and there are viable business models." Beyond that, he adds, the market has become more receptive. Utilities already familiar with solar and wind energy are beginning to cast a favorable eye on ocean energy sources.

The reasons: Water is far denser than air, so the amount of extractable energy in a given volume of water is some 800 times greater than that of the same volume of air. Waves and tides are available virtually 24-7. And the federal government already monitors wave heights, giving power plants a heads-up on their generating capabilities.

Indeed, wave energy is particularly well-suited to Oregon, says Annette von Jouanne, an engineering professor at Oregon State University at Corvallis, whose lab is developing advanced concepts for low-maintenance, high-efficiency buoy-based generators.

Pacific swells off the Oregon coast can range from at least five feet high in the summer to 11-1/2 feet high in the winter. Over the length of the coastline, these swells could, in principle, provide 13,800 megawatts each year to a state that consumes 5,000 to 6,000 megawatts. Oregon already hosts several old coastal lumber mills that are powered by individual power substations, each of which has an outflow pipe to the sea. The existing mills would allow wave-power companies to ship 2,000 megawatts to Oregon communities without any additional infrastructure.

State and local planners and the OPT have designated Gardiner, some 70 miles south of here, as the site for what would be the country's first commercial wave park.

Von Jouanne cautions, however, that wave parks raise some concerns. Fishing interests are concerned about the potential for losing access to productive fishing grounds, for example. She notes that wave parks could pose their own unique, if less violent, issues for marine life. If all goes well in resolving these concerns, and with the permit process, she says she expects to see buoys slowly deployed over the next two to five years, then develop into the full array.

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