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Making Waves

Testing the waters for long-term wave energy

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Oregon fishermen know the coastal waters better than anyone—and that's probably why they've been tapped to help locate a site ideal for turning ocean waves into electricity.

In December, Oregon State University's National Marine Renewable Energy Center was awarded $40 million by the U.S. Department of Energy to construct a wave energy test facility six nautical miles off the coast of Newport.

With the help of fishermen, the offshore site was chosen as a location with minimal conflict but still offering energetic waves. Administrative offices will be located at the Mark O. Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, offering an expanded wave energy education program for the public.

"This will be the most advanced wave energy test facility in the world," said Belinda Batten, director of the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center and professor of engineering at OSU.

Some of the equipment used in ocean wave research.
  • Some of the equipment used in ocean wave research.

Batten says the facility should be operational by 2020. "Developers of wave energy converters should then be able to come in and test their technologies in the facility and really get an understanding of how wave energy converters perform," she says.

The History of Wave Energy

Wave energy is no new thing. Batten says there were wave energy converters in California in the late 1800s, but with smaller populations and abundant hydro in the region, wave energy didn't really take off. Today though, 50 percent of America's population—and a large percentage of the world's population—lives within 50 miles of a coastline. That makes for one of the "last frontiers" of renewable energy, Batten says.

"If we could find ways that are cost effective to harness wave energy, then that can provide a very resilient renewable energy source," she told us.

Wave energy is thought to be resilient because of its predictability and the fact it is consistently available. "Solar is very predictable but it goes away at night. Wind energy isn't very predictable and it can go away fairly quickly," Batten states. For that reason, she says, wave energy has great advantages if the cost becomes competitive.

How the Test Facility Will Work

Wave energy developers will place their technologies at the test site and connect to cables buried underwater. The electricity generated would be transmitted back to the coast and connected to a "utility connection and monitoring facility." At that point, the amount of electricity will be recorded along with the environmental conditions, then conditioned and fed to the electrical grid.

Batten says the test facility will be permitted to connect up to 20 wave energy converters. "That's a pretty big step for the industry," she says. Batten also says OSU has been contacted by numerous wave tech developers wanting to test their technology. The facility will be licensed to produce up to 20 megawatts of electricity, with the potential to power thousands of homes.

If the technology proves successful, Batten says she expects the industry will first employ it in areas such as Alaska or Hawaii where the cost of energy is high.

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Would there be much wave energy application in Oregon and Washington's future? Not unless something changes, according to Batten, because of the region's cheaper hydro power. The rollout would first be to areas where energy costs are higher, such as California. Still, Batten expects wave energy to become more cost effective over time, allowing it to better compete with other renewable forms of energy.

Leading the Research

With the grant, Batten says the OSU facility will become a world leader in testing wave energy. While Australia has a small energy converter in operation, she says there are no commercial applications at present. Another premier test facility online is the European Marine Energy Center located in Orkney, Scotland, which has partnered with OSU for this grant.

Batten says the Scotland facility has been a "huge help" to the University and its other grant partners, including the University of Washington and the University of Alaska­—Fairbanks, where researchers see great promise for the technology.

"It just makes sense to me. As we move forward it will become more incumbent to move away from fossil fuels and to move toward renewable sources. Wave energy appears to be such a promising renewable energy source to add to the portfolio."

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