Wave-Powered Energy Turning the Tide in Oregon

October 17, 2012 Updated: October 26, 2012
Epoch Times Photo
A look at the WET-NZ device as it was during its testing operations 2-3 miles off the coast off Newport, Ore. New research in energy harnessed from waves is expanding the possibilities of America's energy resources. (Pat Kight/Oregon Sea Grant)

Wave-power could soon become a large part of America’s energy infrastructure, and Oregon is on the cutting edge of development. 

Research into technologies that will harness wave power is being done in both the private and public sectors, but it is the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center (NNMREC) that may realize the dream of commercial-grid-electricity generated through wave power. 

Researchers from the University of Washington and Oregon State are the brains behind NNMREC. Brian Polagye oversees projects using tidal energy, while Belinda Batten oversees wave energy. While these two areas may sound the same, they are attempting to harness the power of two very different characteristics of the ocean.

Tidal power research focuses on the slow but constant ebb and flow of the tides. These devices are placed far below the ocean’s surface. Wave-power devices float on or near the surface and generate power from the movement of the waves.

The NNMREC says in order to pioneer the new technology, they have to examine a variety of ideas. “There is no one design, or handful of designs, that seems to be a leader,” said Anthony Casson, Public Information representative for NNMREC. 

Casson said one of the most recent trials was of a type of wave energy converter (WEC) called the Ocean Sentinel. The device is known as a point-absorber, and it hovers just below the ocean’s surface. The Ocean Sentinel generates power with a system of hydraulics that converts the device’s 360-degree rotation to electricity. 

The Ocean Sentinel project, a joint effort between New Zealand and Oregon, recently completed a six-week testing cycle off the coast of Newport, Ore. The Ocean Sentinel tested electric generation off-the-grid and supplied NNMREC with power analysis, data environmental monitoring, and power dissipation control. 

Another WEC, called the Power Buoy, will be tested this month. Developed by New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technologies (OPT), the Power Buoy will be moored off the coast of Reedsport, Ore. Much like the Ocean Sentinel, the Power Buoy is a floating point-absorber with most of its structure underwater and some visible above the ocean’s surface. 

Epoch Times Photo
Researchers work on the WET-NZ, also know as Ocean Sentinel.

Unlike the Ocean Sentinel, the 150-kilowatt Power Buoy uses a giant piston-like device, which generates power through direct-drive mechanics. OPT hopes the Power Buoy could lead to an entire array of power buoys and eventually be connected to form the first wave array in the country. OPT currently has a license for 10 additional grid-connected buoys. 

“Part of NNMREC’s mission is to help people discover what the environmental and social impacts of implementing such devices are, if any exist,” said Casson. “We don’t really have the answers, because the industry is so young. It’s important to note that NNMREC is not a developer; we merely facilitate device development by providing the necessary testing resources. As a university, we also are tied to a large pool of researchers who are available to take new projects when funded.”

A second testing facility is expected to open in May 2013 and is projected to produce between 5 to 10 megawatts (MW) within three years, depending on the type of WEC installed. 

As far as consumers are concerned most people believe this new technology offers more promise than problems. A poll from the Oregon Wave Energy Trust shows that the majority of the state’s coastal residents approve of wave energy development. The nonprofit, public/private group surveyed 400 residents in seven coastal counties. 

“Oregon coastal residents recognize the tremendous potential of harnessing the power of their backyard,” OWET Executive Director Jason Busch said in a statement, according to Earth Techlink. 

But a small percentage strongly oppose the technology because of concerns that it might hurt the fishing industry and ruin coastal views.

According to Batten, device developers are expected to come from all over the world and test wave technology. She says the group will work with a variety of stakeholders in locating the new facility, and examining what kind of environmental impact it might have.

“We are working with fishermen to find a site that is amenable to them,” Batten said. “I doubt much recreation will be affected—it’s only going to be 1 or 2 square nautical miles, so it won’t be a big deal for boats to go around it, and it’s too far out to affect anything like surfing.”

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