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Monday, May 01, 2006

News From My Backyard: More Press for OSU's Work on Wave Power

Oregon State University's work on a linear generator buoy prototype [see picture] that generates electricity from 'the motion of the ocean' has been getting a lot of press lately [see previous post]. Their wave power buoys could be deployed in the next few years in what would be the United States' first commercial wave generation park, likely off the coast of Oregon.

OSU's generator, which turns the churning of ocean waves into useful electricity, is a 'linear generator' buoy design. The motion of ocean waves moves a floating copper coil through a fixed magnetic shaft, generating electricity through the simple action of Faraday's Law [you may be familiar with those manually chargable emergency flashlights that operate on the same principle]. That means the OSU design can generate electricity without any contact between its main parts, reducing the effects of wear and corrosion that at sea can turn the toughest materials into rusted wrecks. This is in contrast to current commercialized wave power generators (i.e. Pelamis' design that just recieved an investment from GE) that operate based on hydraulic or pneumatic joints.

The Register Guard, my local paper, just published a new story on the OSU design and the prospects for a wave park in Oregon. Its a good read and points to the importance of available infrastructure for renewable projects (wave power is no different here than wind or solar - you've got to get the power from where the wind is blowin' or the ocean is rockin' to the place where folks need it) and the potential ocean power has to reinvigorate small coastal communities which could become the new center of an emerging ocean power industry (and again, this is quite similar to the potential of wind and solar). Also, like offshore wind and other renewables, the proposed wave park faces several permitting and (some) NIMBY hurdles. Read on for the text of the article:

Ocean swells pack enough raw power to snap a mega-freighter in two and chisel rocks into sand. Soon they might also provide the energy to light a city and even boost its economy.

Call it the wave of the future.

And it's a future that might not be too far off. Researchers at Oregon State University are honing the design of a new electricity-generating ocean buoy that can turn the churning of the sea into clean, green power for an energy-hungry grid. They are helping lay the groundwork for what would be the nation's first offshore wave energy park.

The electricity is out there. Engineers have estimated that harnessing just 0.2 percent of the ocean's untapped energy would meet the entire planet's power needs.

"There's a tremendous amount of energy available in the ocean," said Oregon State University engineering professor Annette von Jouanne, who is leading an OSU wave energy project with fellow professor Alan Wallace. "There is a tremendous amount of energy available in wave motion."

But not all waves are created equal. Some, such as those on parts of the East Coast, are so mild that they don't have the oomph to charge a flashlight battery.

The West Coast, though, is swimming in big, horsepower-heavy swells kicked up far out in the Pacific Ocean that eventually come crashing ashore in foaming, surfable and soon, perhaps, electricity-generating waves. What's more, studies have shown that of all America's western shoreline, one place stands out as having the best potential for wave energy.

"Sweet spot"

"Oregon is the sweet spot for wave energy in the world," von Jouanne said. "Anyone who goes to the coast can see the potential in that ocean."

To realize that potential, OSU is working on a new type of generator to convert the motion of waves into electricity. Rather than using hydraulics or pneumatics - the basis of current designs - the prototype is based on a linear magnetic generator that uses what researchers call a "contactless force transmission system" to generate electricity.

What that means is that the buoy can produce electricity without having its main parts in contact, reducing the effects of wear and corrosion that at sea can turn the toughest materials into rusted wrecks.

The buoy basically is a copper wire coil surrounding a shaft made from high-density, rare earth magnets. A cable running to the seafloor holds the shaft approximately in one position, while the outer part of the buoy holding the coil bobs up and down on the waves.

That motion, a magnet moving through the center of a copper coil, generates electricity. Each buoy should produce about 250 kilowatts; four rows of 20 buoys each would extract 20 megawatts of electricity, and a network of 200 buoys would produce enough to power downtown Portland.

Still, that's a lot of buoys, and where to put them remains an open question. Oregon has 300 miles of coastline, but one spot stands out as a natural for what would be the nation's first commercial wave energy park: the Douglas County town of Gardiner.

Ready connection

Gardiner has two things that make it a prime wave energy prospect: an unused electricity substation at the abandoned International Paper mill, and a seafloor pipeline. Three companies already have expressed interest in the site.

The 53-megawatt substation provides a ready-made connection to the electrical grid, and the pipeline could be the conduit for the delivery line that would carry electricity from the buoy park to shore. That means the start-up costs for a commercial wave park would be substantially lower than a site where facilities would be built from scratch.

Justin Klure, the state Energy Department official coordinating the wave power initiative, said that also means a shorter development time.

"I would say it's reasonable to assume that there would be some form of a pilot project in the water in the near term," Klure said. "I would say that two years is probably the best-case scenario."

If it can, Gardiner and perhaps other coastal towns could benefit in a big way. And not just by having a new source of electricity; they could become the center of a whole new industry.

That's of particular importance in Gardiner and neighboring Reedsport, where the mill closure meant the end of 650 mostly family-wage jobs.

"Anytime you develop renewable energy resources, economic development goes hand in hand," Klure said. "And what we're talking about here is an emerging industry, one that Oregon an take the leadership role in developing."

Obstacles ahead

The big hurdle right now is the permitting process. The state is working with the federal government and local jurisdictions to lay out some kind of a road map for getting approval for a wave energy operation, but at this point it's all unexplored territory.

"How do you go about siting an energy facility in the ocean?" Klure asked. "There has yet to be a project like this sited in the U.S., and so coordinating federal, state and local jurisdictions is probably one of the most significant barriers. It's not like I'm going to put in a natural gas plant or something that's already been done."

But the bureaucracy isn't the only question mark in wave energy.

A small commercial wave park could take up a part of the ocean 1.25 nautical miles deep by 1,000 feet wide, not only a hazard to coastal navigation but a new and potentially serious headache for the state's important fishing and crabbing industries.

If a wave park is built off Gardiner, it would just happen to float on top of very prime crabbing territory. That's not something people whose living depends on crabs are particularly happy about, but to their credit, they're willing to keep an open mind.

"That area is in prime crab real estate," said Nick Furman of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. "The local fishermen who have met with the folks from the (OSU) engineering lab have looked at the charts, and their first thought has always been, `Is there any other place you can put it?' "

It's possible it could be placed further offshore, but that would be more expensive. So OSU and the state have been working closely with the fishing and crabbing industries to come up with a plan that will be viable from a cost standpoint and have the least possible downside for those who make their living from the sea.

And Furman pointed out that many fishermen are excited by the idea and recognize it has potential benefits that go beyond its effect on fishing.

"I personally, and a lot of other people I've talked to who are involved in the project are pretty excited," he said. "In this day and age of $75-a-barrel oil, it certainly seems like it would make sense to harness as many sustainable, clean methods of power as possible. And certainly crab fishermen have a healthy amount of respect and awe for the power that's out there."

It will be up to a commercial wave power company to actually harness that energy. OSU is helping set the stage for that to happen, but its goal is to get funding for a national wave energy laboratory to be built near the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

The hope is that the combination of a national laboratory and the first commercial wave energy park will secure Oregon a lead spot in a new industry. That's just the position the state wants to be in when wave energy eventually crests.

"We want to have the first commercial wave park," von Jouanne said. "The state that has the first one will win big."

[A hat tip to Jenny]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

WE are very interested in this project - My husband was just talking last night as were body surfing in Lake Michigan - there has to be a way to harness all this energy - SO - are you looking for support - for investors if so please email us at - THANK YOU - Debra