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The Switch: Oregon Well Situated For Ocean Energy

 The Switch

When you flip the switch, where does your power come from?
And what will power Northwest homes and businesses in the future?
We're asking these questions and more for our special series The Switch.

In OPB’s on-going series The Switch we’ve looked at sources of renewable energy that are already producing power — like wind and solar.

But there’s one source, ocean power — from waves or the tide — that remains doggedly attached to the drawing board.

As Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, there are a series of coincidences that make Oregon well-suited to take advantage of ocean power if it ever comes to fruition.

Advantage one: Oregon has a coastline. But unlike the states along the eastern seaboard, the waves that reach our coast are large and regular — because they have thousands of miles to grow.  Prevailing weather means that waves develop from west to east.

Advantage two: the state sits around the 45th parallel, where waves are apparently bigger, according to Bob Paasch  the direct of the newly formed Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center.

Bob Paasch: “Oregon is at 45 degrees north latitude, it’s the perfect spot. And our waves have developed from coming all the way from Japan and hitting our coast.”

Advantage three: in order to bring electricity ashore, you need industrial scale substations close to the ocean. Oregon has dozens of those in the form of shuttered old logging mills.

So when you mix all of those factors in with Oregon’s passion for the environment, it’s easy to see why the state is well placed to develop wave power.

OSU LabAnd nowhere is that development going faster than at this big old laboratory at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

It’s filled with transformers and the kind of massive equipment you’d expect to see in a black and white horror movie — but one machine simulates the motion of a floating buoy.

Kristian: “So I’m standing here next to a very large machine. Which is undulating up and down as if you might imagine it’s floating up and down in the water. It’s basically a large shaft on the inside, which is filled with coils that you might see in an electric motor. On the outside, in a collar around it, are big round magnets. And as they move up and down, that induces an electric current in the coils which then lights a light at the top, and you can see that light flashing on and off, right next to a large American flag up there.”

OSU Lab 2This is the lab of professors Annette von Jouanne and Ted Brekken. It’s their job to figure out the best way to extract electricity out of the ocean. For example, instead of harnessing waves, perhaps it’s more efficient to tap currents, or the tidal flow — like at the mouth of the Columbia River.

New York tried that a few years ago. But the East River was so strong, it ripped-off the blades of the turbine. The University of Washington is looking at a similar project around Puget Sound. 

Scientists in Hawaii are also looking into exploiting the temperature differential between warm surface water and deep cold water.

But as professor von Jouanne explains, nothing has really been pinned down yet.

Annette von Jouanne: “It’s similar to how wind energy was being developed 20 to 25 years ago. You had several different technologies that were being investigated without really a clear engineering solution. Now that’s where we are with wave energy.”

But why?

Why hasn’t wave power matured like solar and wind power?

During the oil crisis of the 1970’s, interest in all the renewables boomed. But while an increasing number of us are now switching on our lights with wind or solar power, there’s not one buoy generating electricity off the Oregon coast.

The reason? Wave power is expensive. And that's disadvantage number one.

A recent study commissioned by the San Francisco Public Utility Commission put the cost of harnessing the Golden Gate's tides at about $1 per kilowatt hour — that compares to about 8 cents for wind power.

San Francisco plans to forge ahead, which should bring down the cost for others.

Still, a solar start up might ask a venture capital firm for $5 million to develop a new idea. Building a wave machine cost 10 times that much.

But there is seed money for ocean-power. And it’s grown from $8 million four years ago to $80 million last year.

That’s just a fraction of the money pouring into solar energy or bio fuels.

But true believers like Ron Adams, the dean of engineering at OSU and the chair of the Governor’s Energy Planning Council, say it can be done.

Ron Adams: “You know, I think we’ll start to see commercial installations within the next five to ten years, that will actually be producing power.”

FishermanIndeed, there are about seven applications for commercial wave energy parks along the Oregon coast — making it seem like hundreds of buoys will be bobbing around out there soon.

Some scientists say that up to 10 percent of Oregon’s energy needs could one day be provided by the ocean.
But for some, that’s too much.

Along the harbor wall in Newport, big fat sea lions fight for the best spot to sun themselves. Nearby, is the fishing vessel Michelle Anne. She’s part-owned by Jorgen Lapem.

Jorgen Lapem: “It would be fine if there were one buoy, and we’d go around it and keep our eye out for it. But there’s 200 of them, and you can’t go in between them. But we have to go around and that would make us lose a lot of area, not to mention having to go out of our way to go around it. And the danger of it, somebody falls asleep at the wheel, or drifting at night, sleeping or taking a break, they might be drifting into these wave farms or whatever.”

Just how big these wave farms might be nobody knows, because the technology isn’t established yet. But a large commercial one might produce 75 megawatts and be about 3 miles long by one mile deep.

Wade Hern: "I’m guessing that they’re going to sell the energy to Southern California.”

BoatsAnother fisherman, Wade Hern, appreciates the need for clean renewable power, but….

Wade Hern: “I feel like we’re going to lose fishing ground for it. In fact I know we will. And we are really down on how much area we can fish right now. They’re trying to put in marine reserves, and that’s going to take away area for us. I’m guessing that the buoys will be closer to shore, which will be crab grounds for us.

There’s also concern that whales might swim into a farm and not be able to get out. And will fish flourish in an area protected from fishing, or get disoriented by the electrical fields all those wires and magnets create?

Which brings us to disadvantage number two: and it’s a big one.

Bob Paasch “It’s easy to make electricity. The hard part is designing these devices to survive out in the ocean through our Oregon winters.”

Renewable Energy Center director, Bob Paasch says anyone who’s ever bobbed around on a small boat knows that salt water will seize-up just about anything.

Then there are all the barnacles and seaweed that’ll do their damnedest to grow right where you don’t want them. And the sun; the unrelenting wind; and the unpredictable action of the waves also take their toll.

Indeed, a couple of years ago a $2 million test buoy, made by Oregon Iron Works for the Canadian company, Finevera, sank during testing.

But still, scientists say the research is worth doing — mainly because harnessing just point two percent of the ocean’s energy would supply the energy the world currently uses.

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