Utilities work to solve Oregon coast wave power puzzle

A wave-power buoy off the Oregon Coast.
A wave-power buoy off the Oregon Coast.

BEND, Ore. (AP) - The constant, reliable motion of waves rolling toward the Oregon Coast is one of the latest renewable energy possibilities attracting interest, even from a local electric cooperative more than 150 miles from the ocean.

Redmond-based Central Electric Cooperative, as part of the PNGC Power cooperative that provides electricity and more to several utilities, is helping to fund a wave-power pilot project off the coast of Reedsport.

The goal, said Jeff Beaman, spokesman for Central Electric, is to study the potential of wave power. While three wave power tests were done several years ago, currently there aren't any buoys or other devices off the coast of Oregon.

"A lot of what this project is about, is to let us learn more about something that there's little known about," he said.

The wave-power buoy, developed by Ocean Power Technologies, is designed to tap into the vertical motion of waves to generate as much as 150 kilowatts, or enough to power about 150 homes. A floating component of the device rests on top of the water, Beaman said, while a portion is anchored to the floor. As the waves come in, pushing the floating section up and down, the machine acts a vertical piston, he said, turning a turbine and generating electricity.

"Under normal sea conditions, you have this steady production with every movement of the wave going up and down," Beaman said.

The first pilot project with a single buoy, slated to be installed late summer or early fall, wouldn't be connected to the power grid but is designed to test the potential, he said.

But if it looks promising, it could turn into a 10-buoy, 1.5-megawatt array that would provide renewable energy.

"All utilities have a growing expectation that they be involved in renewable energy development use," Beaman said. "There are mandates, as well as public expectations."

Under state law, a utility the size of Central Electric Cooperative, for example, needs to get 5 percent of its electricity sales from renewable energy by 2025, he said.

"We have a lot of wind and we have a lot of solar developments, but they're not going to fill the bill," Beaman said. "They have their own issues as far as intermittency and ability to meet the target. We have to continue to look at other sources of renewable energy."

It's too early to determine how wave energy might fit into Central Electric Cooperative's portfolio for its 24,000 members, he said.

Others in the Northwest are interested in the possibility of harnessing wave power as well.

Oregon State University and the University of Washington have created the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, where staffers are investigating how well wave-power technology will work, as well as the environmental and social issues that come with it.

The questions range from the basic question of whether enough energy can be generated, to whether the devices can survive the harsh saltwater and strong winter storm waves, said Meleah Ashford, the center's program manager.

Plus, there are environmental issues to work out, she said, like whether the underwater acoustics generated by the waves will affect animals, whether the anchoring system would alter the marine environment, and the effects of the electromagnetic fields generated by power cables connecting to the buoys. There are also concerns about whether taking energy out of the wave to generate electricity would make the waves slightly less powerful when they reach the beach, altering how sand gets moved around.

"The idea with all this would be to design out the risk," Ashford said. "You shield the cables, design the devices to be quiet, you spread them out so that they don't have much of an effect as (waves) go to the shore."

The marine renewable energy center recently selected a site near Newport, where wave-power developers can come to test their designs and prototypes. Companies can test how devices move in the ocean, how much power they can generate and more.

"We have (computer) modeling abilities and wave tanks," Ashford said. "The next step for them is to take them to the ocean."

There are more than 100 different varieties of wave-power technologies in development, she said, but it's still an emerging technology - only one place in the United States, in Hawaii, is generating power from waves. But there is a lot of interest, she said.

"The biggest appeal is that there's just so much power there," Ashford said. "It's a tremendous amount of power, and it's very consistent, particularly when you look at other renewables. It goes night and day, it doesn't stop at sundown or cloudy days, and it's not dependent on wind."

There is some seasonal variability, but in Oregon the biggest waves come with winter storms - and the colder months are when the state uses the most power, she said.

Wave energy could also bring a new industry and new jobs to the state, since the machines are large and could be manufactured close to the ocean where they'll be deployed.

"Oregon right now is really a center point for this whole thing, because we have the strong research program at Oregon State," she said, "and the public is very interested in this new renewable source."

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Information from: The Bulletin,

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