by Jessica Repa
PORTLAND, Ore. — I recently attended an event in Portland that featured several Pacific Northwest clean tech companies competing to win the coveted Clean Tech Open Award, the grand prize for entrepreneurs whose ideas address energy, environmental, and economic challenges. One of the semifinalists, Columbia Power Technologies, produces a wave-energy device that mimics the motion of a manta ray’s wings. After hearing the pitch, I wanted to find out if wave energy could become a reality in our coastal regions and why surviving a 100-year storm was a prerequisite to success.
Rendering of CPT’s Manta buoy
Wave energy has the capacity to provide homegrown clean energy and jobs in Oregon and is moving from the research-and-development phase to the pre-commercial stage. For wave energy to enjoy commercial success, manufacturers and developers will need to balance multiple stakeholders’ needs, including those of environmentalists, fishing communities, coastal communities, utilities, research institutions, policymakers, and the workforce.
Globally, wave energy has the capacity to provide 6,000 terawatt hours of electricity each year, enough to power more than 600 million homes. The market potential of the wave-energy industry is more than $1 trillion. About 3 billion people, or half of the world’s population, live within 200 kilometers of a coastline. By 2025, that is expected to double to 6 billion people, creating an even larger market for wave energy.
I spoke with several experts in the wave-energy industry, and learned how alignment with ocean stakeholders is a prerequisite to getting wave energy out of its infancy. I also learned Oregon has an edge over other areas in the country for wave energy because of the larger populations living closer to the coast and the prevailing winds that generate strong waves.
Let the dissenters come to the drawing board
So if there is so much potential from wave energy, why hasn’t it taken off? According to Meleah Ashford, program manager at Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center (NNMREC), technology challenges, environmental uncertainty, and ocean space sharing are the biggest barriers to wave energy. Existing ocean users consider waves their turf.
“Harnessing wave power takes up precious ocean space, so hopefully we can figure out how to share it,” says Ashford. The fishing community doesn’t want to be confined by buoys or equipment, as less access to marine resources means less income. Including fishing communities as key stakeholders in the political process will be a key to wave energy’s success. Ashford said some of the fishing communities are involved in the actual design process of wave-energy projects and provide valuable input to reach consensus. What better way to hear from the dissenters than to give them a seat at the drawing board?
Meanwhile, leading universities such as Oregon State University (an EnviroMedia client) are investigating the impact the industry could have on marine mammals, seabirds, shorelines, hard surface structures, electromagnetic fields, and acoustics. For example, environmentalists are concerned that wave energy could have an impact on whale migration, sharks’ electro-sensory perception, and Dungeness crabs. Even surfers are cautious about wave energy because of the potential affect on the size and quality of surfing waves.
These ocean stakeholders are playing a vocal role in exploring the issues and pushing for the necessary research to determine whether there is an impact. Ashford told me that the top five mechanical engineering graduate students at OSU all want to get involved in the wave energy industry.
According to Jason Busch, executive director of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, “Oregon is poised to lead the nation in wave energy for several reasons. Oregon’s waves have strong potential to generate power compared to other coastal states. We have the local demand and existing transmission infrastructure to absorb and distribute new electricity generation from the ocean. Combined with a strong manufacturing base and appetite for wave energy, we are positioned to be the nationwide leader in wave energy.”
The science and technology of wave energy
One of the perceived barriers to deployment of most renewable energy is that it is intermittent and unpredictable. Wave energy is more predictable and less intermittent than other forms of renewable energy generation, and like other forms of traditional electricity generation, can be scheduled ahead of time and forecasted several days in advance.
Wave forecast from Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center
There are several popular wave-energy devices, including the point absorber device from CPT. According to Reenst Lesemann, vice president of business development at Columbia Power Technologies (CPT), “a commercially viable device has to be able to survive the harshest conditions, be reliable, easy to maintain, cost effective, and have a low environmental impact.” Fewer moving parts make their device easier to maintain. Capturing power from both the heave and the surge of the wave makes the Manta device more productive than competing technologies by capturing the full potential from each wave. (Heave is the up and down motion; surge is the forward motion.) In addition, the buoys can withstand a 100-year storm.
At full scale, each Manta buoy is some 80 feet tall by 55 feet wide, with just 10 percent of it above water. While CPT is a device manufacturer and not a wave-energy project developer, Lesemann said that for a typical project, Mantas would be spaced about 300 yards apart in a honeycomb pattern. Each device could power at least several hundred houses, and in the future, wave energy could supply base-load power to meet the energy demands of the coastal communities. The number of devices in the water would depend on demand, but could potentially be 50 or more devices clustered offshore. CPT plans to launch a full-scale device in Oregon in the next two years at the Mobile Ocean Test Berth site in Newport, part of the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center. Watch a video of the Manta in action here.
It could be the wave of the future.
 Source: Frost & Sullivan, Hydro, Wave, and Tidal Power – Market Penetration and Roadmapping