By Conner Gordon
Sitting at the 2012 Oregon Wave Energy Trust (OWET) conference, Nick Edwards might seem out of place as a member of an organization that could eventually ban fishing in areas along the state’s coast—especially considering that Edwards is a 35-year veteran commercial fisherman from Coos Bay, Oregon. In actuality, there is no place he would rather be.
Edwards is the sole representative of Oregon’s commercial fishing industry on the board of OWET, a nonprofit partnership whose mission is to support responsible wave energy development along the Oregon Coast. “There are very few people in the [fishing] industry who are doing what I’m doing. I’m trying to be a true steward to the industry,” he says. Edwards’s mission is to ensure Oregon’s prominent fishing grounds, and the fleet of fishermen who earn their income from fishing these areas, are protected from unchecked displacement by wave energy developers.
Nick Edwards is a fourth-generation fisherman who holds the twelfth largest Dungeness crab permit in Oregon. He is also a member of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, an organization supporting the responsible development of wave energy.
Why the sudden rush for this renewable energy source in Oregon? The answer is that companies worldwide are beginning to recognize the limitations of existing energy sources and are now targeting a resource once thought to be too unpredictable and powerful: the ocean.
Most recently, a wave energy device has been tested off the Oregon Coast as part of the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center’s (NNMREC) quest to harness clean and renewable energy for Oregon’s coastal communities. The center, based at Oregon State University(OSU), has recently participated in launching an instrumentation surface buoy called the Ocean Sentinel.
The Ocean Sentinel buoy, which most closely resembles a caution-tape yellow boat strewn with measuring equipment, floated in a one-square mile area northwest of Yaquina Head off the Oregon Coast. “The Ocean Sentinel is a test stand for wave energy converters in the open sea,” says Sean Moran, NNMREC’s manager of ocean test facilities. Although the Ocean Sentinel buoy houses the environmental and electricawl measuring devices, a separate device called a wave energy converter ultimately harnesses the energy.
The Ocean Sentinel has already been used to test a half-scale prototype wave energy converter belonging to Wave Energy Technology– New Zealand. This device, known as the WET-NZ converter, absorbs the natural energy caused by ocean currents and waves, turning it into useable wattage-ready energy that can be transferred to Oregon’s power grid.
Just as much of an iceberg’s mass is hidden below the water’s surface, the yellow tip of the WET-NZ device sits above water on a float and contains the energy converting equipment. The device’s hull extends deep beneath the water’s surface and is flooded with seawater to keep the device upright. The lower section pivots 360 degrees to harness energy from motion in any direction.
Every wave energy converter is different and must be tailored to the environment where it will be placed. In Oregon, harsh winters bring on strong ocean winds that create massive waves. It is important that any device placed in Oregon’s waters be durable, especially when enduring conditions harsh enough to mangle a boat. Whereas the WET-NZ floats on the surface but protrudes deep under, a different device might be positioned on the ocean floor or anchored in shallow waters near the coastline. The importance of long-term ocean testing of several different prototypes cannot be overlooked and only when a device proves it can withstand nature’s torment, will one be chosen for the Oregon Coast. With so many devices in development, and with a lack of a standard design for wave energy converters, NNMREC is tasked with sorting through these competing technologies to find the most successful devices.
Although NNMREC’s primary focus is collecting data from wave energy converters, researchers hope to find the safest and most efficient area to place the devices in the Pacific Ocean and to ultimately help create the first wave energy farm along the Oregon Coast. This process starts in NNMREC’s testing facilities at OSU, where researchers scale down and recreate wave activity observed along the Pacific coastline.
While much of the OSU lab space is comprised of computers and small measuring devices, more extensive large-scale testing is done at an affiliate facility: the OH Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory. The lab is home to the Wave Flume and Tsunami Wave Basin, chambers that resemble wave pools much like those found in waterparks, although these mimic wave activity specific to the coast. The Wave Flume and the Wave Basin are capable of testing scaled-down versions of wave energy devices. This allows for extensive physical testing and for companies to develop their technology under one roof. One of the models tested here may someday be the design for converters used at the proposed wave energy farm along the coast.
If a site is agreed upon, the farm may consist of ten instrumentation surface buoys similar to the Ocean Sentinel, which would analyze power levels and monitor environmental forces. Each surface buoy would be tethered to a wave energy converter and individually fastened to the ocean floor. To avoid collisions between buoys and converters, the pairs would be positioned 150 meters apart and connected by a cable to transfer power between the devices.
Moran says harnessing this energy isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t cheap. In the past five years, the Department of Energy has granted more than $64 million to OSU’s energy research efforts. One of NNMREC’s partners, OWET, has also granted money to wave energy research and development.
OWET has spent more than $10 million in the past six years on wave energy development. Of that $10 million, $430,000 was awarded to New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technologies (OPT) to develop and install a pioneer wave energy converter, not officially announced but assumed to be the PB150 PowerBuoy®, near Reedsport, Oregon. “It’s a one-dimensional device where waves bring a float up and down and a coil generates energy,” Moran says. In contrast to the WET-NZ converter, which turns on an axis to gather energy, the PowerBuoy® generates electricity through vertical motion. At this stage it is uncertain which technology is preferable, although both devices share a hefty development price tag.
But money isn’t the only thing at stake in the scramble for wave energy. In addition to testing and research, NNMREC is committed to ensuring that any device placed in the water will be safe for ocean ecosystems and coastal marine life. “We’re ahead of just about everyone else in the world in studying the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of wave technology,” Moran says. The PowerBuoy® was built with the safety and preservation of the ocean in mind, receiving high environmental ratings.
David Sutherland, a coastal and estuarine oceanographer and assistant professor at the University of Oregon, says he is concerned about the potentially adverse environmental effects wave energy converters could have on Oregon’s coast. “If the wave energy [device] is big enough, and you’re actually trying to extract enough energy to make a difference, you’re taking some of that wave energy out of the ocean,” he says. Waves tend to crash offshore, Sutherland says, creating turbulence that carries and deposits sediment in its wake, forming the traditional sandy beach. Sutherland is concerned the converters intercepting wave energy could significantly affect beach formation.
Marine life such as sea stars and sea anemones, whose tide pool habitat relies on the waves crashing onshore, may also be at risk. Much like their influence on beach formation, offshore wave energy devices could threaten coastal habitats by keeping waves from delivering a consistent deluge of water and nutrients to the shoreline, Sutherland explains. He believes the consequence of installing wave energy farms is uncertain. “[The devices could] affect shorelines that usually get the wave energy, affecting what the beach looks like, or affecting life that depends on some wave action like tide pools,” he continues. That said, the only way to investigate such implications is to get out in the water and do some real-world testing, and Oregon is at the forefront of that research, Sutherland says.
One organization concerned with these unknowns is Fishermen Involved in Natural Energy (FINE). FINE’s 16 members represent fishermen from all aspects of the industry including salmon, albacore, crab, shrimp, and seafood processing sectors in Lincoln County. As a group, FINE documents any concerns relating to wave energy. Before any buoys on the Oregon Coast are placed in the water, NNMREC communicates with the organization about issues surrounding mooring systems and deployment techniques.
Although FINE has positively interacted with wave energy companies, as well as with the Oregon state government, the organization is cautious when deciding which projects to support. FINE wants to ensure each project and every device placed in the water operates with the preservation of marine habitats in mind. Ultimately, FINE is focused on keeping a positive and cooperative relationship between fishing communities and wave energy developers.
Oregon’s Dungeness crab season is open from December 1 until August 14. Dungeness have become the state’s most valuable fishery, harvesting nearly $42 million in crab during the 2011-2012 season.
Other fishermen, like Edwards, are also concerned about wave energy’s potential effect on their commercial interests. Edwards holds the twelfth largest Dungeness crab permit in the state of Oregon and makes his living on the Oregon Coast. “We know that renewable energy is something of the future that we’re going to have to harness to get away from fossil fuels, [but] it has to be done in a responsible way,” Edwards says.
Perhaps surprisingly, Moran believes leaders in the wave energy movement share Edwards’s sentiment. “We don’t want to displace another resource. Why would you take away a resource that has value to current users?” Moran says. “To put a bunch of machines out there that don’t work?” In his effort to address concerns about wave energy’s possible impact on Oregon’s fishing industry, Moran is committed to only placing the highest quality devices into the water—devices that not only generate energy, but are environmentally safe as well.
Edwards is concerned with the durability of these proposed devices. “First and foremost, a device has to undergo one year of testing in the water to [test its resilience to] the environment in the Pacific Northwest. When you have ocean conditions like you have here with 100-mile-an-hour winds, the devices have to be able to sustain that,” Edwards says. Development efforts are now focusing on redesigning wave energy converters to operate without hydraulic fluids, which could endanger wildlife if spilled into the water. The devices will also be triple-anchored to the seafloor to ensure the buoy stays secure even if the first two tethers fail. But as is often the case with any new technology, with every solution, another question arises.
Where should the farm be situated so that it doesn’t interfere with commercial fishing and recreational boating? And perhaps most importantly, where would it have the least environmental impact?
Ocean zoning is now being considered for wave farms. Much like how cities are divided into zones to regulate land use, ocean zones will map where wave energy farms can be installed. This is a first for the ocean, and Sutherland is wary but supportive of the concept. “It’s sort of new in the ocean that we’ll be making marine zones for different uses and wave energy will soon be put on the ocean map,” Sutherland says. “Maybe we’ll have marine reserves [zoned] for biological things. We have to start planning the ocean a little more than we do right now.” The way these ocean zones are mapped could significantly affect the fishing industry. It’s likely the wave energy zones will prohibit fishing in certain areas to protect the expensive devices and cables hidden beneath the ocean’s surface.
This could be especially problematic for members of Oregon’s Dungeness crab industry, such as Edwards, who rely on harvesting a total of nearly $44 million worth of crab from the ocean floor each year. The seafloor surrounding the wave farm could become inaccessible to fishermen and crabbers who have spent their lives fishing in these previously free zones. This is a concern for Edwards. “Ocean renewable energy has to be done in a responsible way—a way that doesn’t displace people. If you’re giving up real estate, it has to be something that actually works and is viable,” he says. Edwards emphasizes responsible renewable energy, meaning developing farms so none or few current users of Oregon’s ocean are displaced by unproven technology. But industry and community concerns might be mitigated by new jobs and energy stemming from producing local power. Only time will tell.
Despite these concerns and the potential for hostility between fishermen and wave energy advocates, Edwards has taken a positive approach to the progressive technology. “I’m not against renewable energy,” Edwards says. “I can’t wait. When this is all done and set and the real estate is picked out, I can work in a more positive manner to help promote responsible wave energy in Oregon.” Edwards wants to ensure fishermen are treated fairly in the process. Still, many questions remain unanswered. “The big question is, once these things are up and going, and green power is being put on the grid, are there people that are going to pay for that green power? Can that green power be sold down in California with those rolling blackouts of the past?” An answer to these questions could come from right at home, as a local demand for this energy is one step closer to a self-sufficient Oregon.
Sutherland believes keeping energy local is beneficial to the communities using clean energy. “You can think about energy as following the local food movement; maybe we want local energy, too,” Sutherland says. When electricity travels over a distance, it’s impossible to preserve all the energy in transit. When energy stays local, more of that power is retained. Sutherland says he is optimistic about the local impact wave energy can bring to Oregon, and hopefully to the rest of the world. “The transmission lines can be shorter and everything can be a little more local,” he says.
At this early stage in wave energy development, it is impossible to fully grasp the potential positive or negative impacts on coastal communities and the state of Oregon. Everything now comes down to testing—finding the most efficient device that poses the least risk to ocean ecosystems and the people who rely on them. Perhaps one day the technology might minimize Oregon’s dependence on fossil fuels and limit its reliance on imported energy.