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Northwest Ready To Lead In Harnessing The Motion Of The Ocean

This month a new technology to generate electricity from ocean waves hits the water.  Test buoys will be deployed a few miles off the coast at Newport and Bandon, Oregon and Makah Bay, Washington.

The Northwest is poised to lead the way on wave energy. But for those who earn a living on the water, it’s not clear the ocean’s big enough for everyone. Correspondent Elizabeth Wynne Johnson has our story.

Annette von Jouanne lives for water. She’s a former competitive swimmer, married to a three-time Olympian and raising two water-loving kids. By day, she’s head of the nation’s top wave energy research lab at Oregon State University.

Annette von Jouanne: "I have a pic that I’m looking at right now with my family underwater with our [laughs] goggles on. That’s what it’s all about. You know, ensuring a sustainable future for the next generation."

When the professor of electrical engineering looks out at crashing waves, she thinks about all that power dissipating back into the deep….

Annette von Jouanne: "Our goal is to harness the energy in the heaving ocean swells."

That’s about as straightforward and poetic as a description of wave energy gets.  How it works: Offshore buoys use the perpetual motion of the ocean to generate electricity.  The churning water has what von Jouanne calls ‘energy density,’ meaning that a little bit of ocean can produce a lot of megawatts.

Enough to impress Oregon congresswoman Darlene Hooley.

Darlene Hooley: "The potential is there to produce about 10-percent of the energy needs of this country.  Which is significant."

The Democratic Representative sponsored a bill to put $250 million over five years into wave energy research.  It’s included in the House energy package.  Oregon would feel a major jolt from this proposed surge in alternative energy funding.

Darlene Hooley: "It means jobs, it’s research and development. It means new investments into the coastal communities. And those are not terribly wealthy communities. But this has great potential for them."

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has permit applications for seven projects along the Oregon coast – in places like Astoria, Garibaldi and Newport.  Other proposals include Makah Bay in Washington State, plus projects in California and on the East Coast.

The applicants include major players in the alternative energy business. They envision wave energy parks, where arrays of buoys connect to the grid by cables along the sandy bottom.

Suddenly the open waters start to look a bit more restricted.

Kevin Dunn: "I’m all for new and innovative ways of getting energy, but I’m almost certain that anywhere that they do this will be another closed area for us."

Kevin Dunn of Astoria is a commercial fisherman.  He runs an 80-foot stern trawler named the Iron Lady up and down the Oregon coast.

Kevin Dunn: "Dover, thorny heads (ocean catfish), sand sole, sand dabs…"

Fish stocks are down.  Environmental regulations are up.  In some counties, officials are taking steps to make sure they don’t sacrifice an old industry in the effort to build a new one.

Coastal crabbers, in particular, worry they’ll be shut out of prime marine-floor real estate by the proposed wave energy parks.  For his part, Kevin Dunn’s just very wary.

Kevin Dunn: "There’s places that it might be absolutely wonderful and there are places that we might really, really, really not want them. And — given the history — chances are they're going to be right where we don’t want them."

The pursuit of alternative and renewable energy is a kind of modern-day gold rush.  Everyone’s staking claims.

Depending on how you look at it, the ocean’s half-full or half-empty.

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