Ore. town chosen as first major wave energy test site in U.S.

Source: Elizabeth Harball, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The town of Newport, Ore. (population 9,968), calls itself the “Dungeness crab capital of the world.” Soon, though, it may instead be known as the wave energy capital of America.

The Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center (NNMREC), based out of Oregon State University, recently announced plans to build the United States’ first utility-scale, grid-connected wave energy test site in Newport.

At what will be called the Pacific Marine Energy Center (PMEC), scientists and engineers will test up to four devices brought in by different developers to determine the cost of deep-water wave energy technology, as well as the environmental and social impacts.

The project is essential to helping wave energy catch up to other forms of renewable energy, said Belinda Batten, director of NNMREC. Experiments in Scotland, Hawaii, Australia and in New England are already under way to harness the potentially huge natural power of tides and wave action.

“The best way to harvest energy from the ocean is not yet known,” said Batten. “The delay is really the lack of test facilities — that’s really what it comes down to.”

Five miles off Newport’s shore, researchers will monitor new devices, making sure they don’t interfere with fish populations, marine mammals and even the tiny organisms that live in sand. They will also find out if the technology is worth a larger investment.

“Fundamentally, what we need is the amount of energy produced for the cost of the device,” Batten said.

By determining the effectiveness of different wave energy devices, PMEC will help developers move forward with larger-scale projects — projects that could provide a significant contribution to Oregon’s energy needs.

More ambitious projects need more room

The NNMREC and Oregon Power Technologies Inc. have already tested wave energy devices near Newport using a mobile buoy, but the development of more powerful technology called for a utility-scale test site, Batten explained.

“The challenge is, a lot of the devices that the developers are trying to build are pushing the 1-megawatt scale,” she said. “The equipment is just too big to put in a mobile solution.”

Last September, NNMREC announced that it had received $4 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a larger site that would connect to the power grid. Matching funds were provided by the state-funded Oregon Wave Energy Trust (OWET), the Oregon Department of Energy and other non-federal sources.

When it came to choosing a site for PMEC, Newport and the nearby town of Reedsport rose to the top. Ultimately, Newport was chosen because the town offered more flexibility, providing more ocean space and multiple routes to lay down cables.

Kaety Hildenbrand of Oregon State University has worked for almost 10 years to minimize the impact of wave energy technology on Oregon’s fishermen, local governments and other ocean users. As a result, she said, there was very little controversy surrounding the decision to place PMEC in Newport.

“Everyone can kind of get behind a test facility,” she said, stressing that “this is not a commercial project, and it’s not going to be a commercial project. It’s really to test devices, and how those individual developers move forward is really up to them.”

Newport is already home to other research sites, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific marine operations center and Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. The city is happy to host PMEC, said Derrick Tokos, the city’s community development director, explaining that the test site will be of “modest size” and will likely have a negligible impact on local crab fishermen.

Still many unknowns

PMEC was, in part, modeled after the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) sites in the United Kingdom, which reported on its blog that all 14 of its test berths were occupied at the end of 2012.

The city of Newport and NNMREC hope that their project will become a global competitor with wave energy test sites like EMEC, proving a boon to the local economy by providing jobs and bringing in business from developers.

“The family of companies around ocean energy is growing,” said Jason Busch, director of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust. “Oregon has been very successful. We are already the center of the ocean energy industry in this country, to the extent that there is one.”

But like the wave energy industry as a whole, there are still many unknowns surrounding the test site, including when construction will begin and how much it will ultimately cost. Hildenbrand said NNMREC must secure a number of permits from the city, state and federal governments before it can start laying cables. This could potentially take up to five years.

And although the total cost of PMEC was previously estimated at $25 million, Batten said the final site design, and thus the final cost, has not yet been determined.

A wave-rich environment

On Jan. 24, the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission is voting on whether to allow permits for wave energy companies to install devices off the state’s coast, and a positive result seems likely. If the PMEC test site gives developers the go-ahead on new wave energy technologies, the state of Oregon could greatly benefit from the energy in the crashing waves along its coastline.

The Oregon coast is uniquely situated for ocean energy, receiving the brunt of an east-to-west wind pattern that produces prime waves, said Jason Busch, director of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, who helped the NNMREC move the project forward.

PMEC is an “absolutely integral part to the long-term development of this new source of clean, reliable, predictable form of energy, which we need,” Busch said. In the very long term, Busch thinks wave energy has the potential to provide 500 MW of energy to the state. That is roughly half the output of a large nuclear power plant, but first scientists must learn how to design and use equipment that can survive in a hostile environment.

Rebecca O’Neil of the Oregon Department of Energy said she will believe that number when she sees it, but she doesn’t deny the potential of wave energy devices for her state. O’Neil said energy from the ocean could provide the Oregon coast with a needed resource.

“Almost all of our power generation happens east of the Cascades and then gets transported west. Our coast actually doesn’t have any energy generating resources of its own,” O’Neil said. If ocean energy technology makes great strides with the help of PMEC, O’Neil said, the Oregon coast’s electric infrastructure could handle — and use — the extra 500 MW.

“PMEC is an incredible opportunity — there’s nothing like it in the country,” she said. “There’s no question that there’s a lot of energy in the ocean.”