At the center of the debate is an oyster. It has no shell, stands over three stories tall and the muscle of its jaw is a pair of hydraulic pistons. When it anchors to the ocean floor, it arrives on a crane. More than $80 million is behind the scouting effort for its next home.
The Oyster (capital O) is Aquamarine Power’s answer to ocean energy. It generates power by capturing waves and pushing them to drive a hydroelectric turbine onshore. Fashioned in arrays, an Oyster farm can generate 100 megawatts of power a year, more lucrative than pearls. For the past six years, Scotland-based Aquamarine Power has been intensely focused on deploying it in wave-rich parts of the world, Oregon included.
As the search to bed the Oyster off Oregon mounts, this hulk of technology has become a symbol of the state’s planning savvy for some, a case in point for why Oregon has spent nearly three years drawing invisible lines around the ocean, zoning where such projects can locate.
But for local champions of a wave-energy industry still in its global infancy, the Oyster has become emblematic of something else: zig-zagging policy regarding ocean energy and the state’s own tendency to trip over its mixed directives, sometimes with bitter consequences for business.
“A few years ago a bunch of really smart people got together and identified areas of opportunity for the Oregon economy,” says Jason Busch, executive director of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust (OWET), a state-funded nonprofit that’s been charged with growing the wave industry since 2007. “A lot of people smarter than me — I’m talking major business leaders around the state and political leaders through the Oregon InC process — thought ocean energy presented the highest beneficial impact to the Oregon economy.”
Since that effort created OWET, Busch says, “We’re out there talking to different companies trying to get them to come to Oregon, and then three years into the process all of a sudden the state says, uh, we’re not going to process any permits for the next 18 months or two years.”
Energy developers were what galvanized the surreal process of zoning the ocean, when a rush on lease applications in 2006 and 2007 prompted the Oregon Division of Land Conservation and Development to begin blocking out portions of the ocean for sensitive habitat, fishing, recreation and coastal views, among other things, in 2008.
But the Oyster has complicated matters by hitting the water faster than the new zoning rules. In December, Aquamarine Power applied for leases along 7,000 acres of the Oregon coast, aiming to deploy four testing devices to gauge conditions for the Oyster’s new home. The Oyster would ultimately occupy much smaller sites, about 70 feet deep by 1,400 feet long.
The state’s message to the water-ready wave company?
|Aquamarine Power’s Oyster 1 wave power device at Nigg near Inverness in Scotland prior to installation at sea.|
|The Oyster 1 at Nigg prior to installation. Aquamarine Power is working on the Oyster II with hopes of deploying it in Oregon waters.|
|The Oyster 1 in operation in Scotland. It generates power by capturing waves and pushing them to drive a hydroelectric turbine on shore.|
Despite years of planning for wave energy, and an optimistic pronouncement the plan could be done this spring, it will be another 12 to 18 months before Oregon offers permits for ocean energy development. Maybe longer.
|In September 2008, OSU and Columbia Power Technologies completed a series of bay and ocean testing of a 10-kilowatt permanent magnet linear generator. Shown here is the 10-kilowatt buoy powering a 1.5-kilowatt navigational light in the waters off the coast of Newport.|
“The planning isn’t complete,” says Paul Klarin, Marine Affairs Coordinator for Department of Land Conservation and Development, which is in charge of the process. While much of the data has been collected, “We’re at the beginning of the process to look at all the areas along the coast and determine what areas are appropriate for development.” Planners must still add dozens of data overlays before issuing final maps, Klarin says, and the map’s creators also plan to host up to 16 meetings up and down the Coast to solicit input throughout the spring and summer.
Busch is critical of the process, even though it has nearly $400,000 in OWET funding behind it. He is particularly bothered that public meetings will not include the wave-energy industry, focusing instead on high- value fishing, traditional users and ecological health.
“It’s becoming increasingly open-ended. And that is unacceptable from the industry standpoint. If people think that we can just process this for two years and still get the benefits that we set out to get… we will not succeed,” he says. “We cannot have an interminable process and expect to attract jobs to this state. It just won’t happen.”
Aquamarine Power is free to apply for temporary permits for testing. But the company can lay no permanent claim to sites that test successfully and will lose the money spent testing if those sites aren’t on agreeable portions of the state’s map when it’s released.
As the industry increasingly views Aquamarine Power as the canary in the coal mine, the future looks like less of a sure thing than industry leaders once envisioned for Oregon.
So far, those companies have seen extensive support from OWET, which heavily recruited some to the state. OWET has also provided environmental and development research, as well as policy support and $496,000 in state grants to propel wave-energy projects closer to Oregon’s ocean.
It isn’t just these freebies that entice developers here. The state’s swath of sea has some of the best wave-development potential on the globe, owing to the force of the waves and the topography of the seafloor. That the coastline is also cradled by power lines that once served the timber industry adds attraction. Much onshore infrastructure is still needed to support ocean energy, but millions of dollars in transmission costs can be avoided by companies that tap what exists.
Including Aquamarine Power, nine companies are actively pursuing that goal. The list includes companies testing fledgling technologies in water tanks and in laboratories, ranging from Seattle-based Principal Power’s deep-water windmills to California-based Shift Power Solutions’ Lego-like power modules, 36-by-36 inch blocks that can be built in infinite arrays near shore.
Companies in Oregon also include players with fully developed technologies such as Columbia Power Technologies, the Corvallis company that announced successful deployment of its first test buoy in Puget Sound March 8, and Ocean Power Technologies, a public company headquartered in the United Kingdom. It was OPT’s early advance on Oregon that galvanized the state’s planning process, so OPT will be grandfathered into the zoning maps when its first buoy hits the water near Reedsport this summer, following delays.
Other companies will have to wait. “We need to have a process they can look at and say, ‘This is what you’re going to have to do to get into our waters here,’” says Rep. Deborah Boone (D-Cannon Beach). She isn’t yet convinced the state is making things harder on the ocean energy industry, given that a process is in place to clarify a track. While that process remains uncertain, Boone says, “I do understand the businesses’ frustration with that because they’re going to have a hard time getting financing.”
The wide range of technologies possible in ocean energy has added to the social pressure to plan for its arrival. Coastal leaders have welcomed the industry for its economic potential, but with caution, recognizing it could have negative consequences for commercial fishermen, shrimpers, charter operators, and recreational sports and fishing if planned poorly.
|Model of buoy from Oregon Iron Works|
“It’s kind of like a gold rush that’s going on in the ocean right now. Everyone is interested in ocean energy and we wanted to have a say in what was happening,” says Tillamook County Commissioner Mark Labhart, who believes the planning process is critical to giving residents, recreational users and industries like fishing a voice in how ocean energy fits in.
Busch and others, however, argue Oregon has limited time to capitalize on wave-energy development and that the time to hit the water is now.
“The key is to become the locus of ocean wave power in the United States,” he says, and export talent, materials and technology for the next 50 years. “Do we really want to say ‘no’ to that because of potential impacts about which we’re doing our very darnedest to learn?” The ocean is a big place, he says, and there must be ways for companies to hit the water as planning continues.
One look to Ontario, Canada, where a sudden moratorium on offshore wind power caused companies to flee, and the root of Busch’s fear is laid bare. Like most businesses, ocean power companies flock to opportunity, not to places to wait. Busch worries that a year or more of inaction in Oregon could similarly reverse OWET’s progress.
Theresa Wisner, Oregon community outreach coordinator for Aquamarine Power in Newport, says waiting is a tough sell to investors. “We completely understand the need for spatial planning on the ocean. It will help us considerably in the long run by allowing us to focus in on places that we should go.” But she adds, “We cannot wait indefinitely for that. Aquamarine has put a significant investment here in the state to see this move forward.” She says she is currently negotiating with state officials on solutions.
Industry players range from cautiously optimistic to concerned about the state’s planning process as it appears increasingly open-ended. Though all say they support the planning, and that a completed plan will have benefits — chiefly a level of certainty in permitting that’s likely to play well with investors — there is grumbling about the lack of a deadline, a basic industry need.
Justin Klure, a partner with Pacific Energy Ventures in Portland, works with several ocean energy clients at different levels of commercialization.
|Oregon Iron Works constructs the heave plate for the OPT buoy; it has a diameter of 40 feet and weighs 44 tons.|
“Marine spatial planning, I think, has significant benefit to the industry with regards to understanding, not only so much where projects should go, but where they should not go. But with regards to it being another 12 to 18 months… that’s a challenge,” he says.
Developers such as Mike Morrow, a principal at M3 Wave Energy in Salem, are content with a long-term vision. M3 Wave Energy is testing a submerged power device that won’t hit the water soon. Any delay in the state’s ocean zoning plan gives his company more time to network with other ocean users, whose support he views as key to their success.
“I couldn’t take a map and put a bunch of pennies on the places that we would like to develop because there are just so many things that we don’t know yet,” says Morrow.
DLCD’s Klarin is keenly aware that some wave-energy companies are still developing technology. And that some will never have a successful water launch, like Vancouver, B.C.-based Finavera Renewables, which sank a buoy off the coast of Lincoln City before changing its name to Finavera Wind Energy in February and concentrating efforts elsewhere. Klarin notes that ocean energy companies also face hurdles in raising capital, building infrastructure and competing with other power sources, many of them cheaper.
“That’s why I don’t feel an urgency to get something done tomorrow,” says Klarin. “Our plan will be sitting around waiting for all that stuff to happen for quite a while.”
Klarin is also frustrated with developers’ approach to Oregon. “They want fast-track easy [permits],” a lower bar on environmetal reviews and regulations, and subsidies. In summary, he says, their message to the state has been, “Give us a free hand and all the money in the world and maybe we’ll do something that will benefit you.”
Yet recent activity from Oregon’s most successful wave-energy developer and also the least encumbered, OPT, shows that waiting poses real risks to jobs and economic health by stifling opportunity in an industry that clearly has room to grow.
Well capitalized from its first public offering in 2007, OPT recently contracted with Oregon Iron Works for a multimillion-dollar project to build its first 200-ton buoy. Though the contract amount was not disclosed, Bob Lurie, vice president of North America for Business Development, says it created 35 jobs at Oregon Iron Works. Once built, the buoy will need two other Oregon companies — American Bridge and Sauce Brothers — to moor, deploy and maintain it.
The project ties OPT to Oregon for a long while. But with buoys already in the water in Hawaii and other projects in the works in Scotland, Japan and Australia, OPT illustrates how wave energy companies can and do operate in the most inviting markets.
“We can say that we’ve been impressed with the earnest effort that the state is making to try to accommodate wave energy and also work with all the stakeholders to make sure it is being done in a responsible way,” says Lurie.
Though OPT will not be affected by delays in planning, he says, the goal of state planning was to create a process for developing ocean energy, something continued delays fail to offer.
Oregon House co-speaker Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay/Florence) says capturing the wave-energy industry remains a high priority for Oregon, as evident in the years of planning and tremendous energy directed at forming OWET. He says it’s important to have a clear understanding of current ocean users as energy opportunities are planned for, and to protect all ocean stakeholders moving forward.
“As we embark on the final stages of the sea-mapping plan,” he says, “I am confident we can address the issues raised and we’ll continue to work to keep this new industry as a vital part of Oregon’s future.”