Wave Power The Uncertain Frontier of Ocean-Based Energy Development

In the 2007 state legislative session, Oregon passed a renewable energy standard bill mandating that the state’s largest utilities get 25 percent of their energy from homegrown renewable sources by 2025. To meet the requirement, Oregon is investing in several green energy technologies, including eight wave energy projects along some 360 miles of coastline. This represents the largest, most concentrated and fast-tracked development of wave energy anywhere in North America.

The idea of harnessing the ocean’s power has been around for decades, but only recently have governments, investors and industries begun to embrace it as a feasible technology. Energy traveling through water is roughly 1,000 times denser than wind. The outlook is promising and investment in companies that provide this technology is spiking.

But to measure environmental impact, there must be physical projects in the ocean. Wave farms might affect many aquatic species. Environmentalists and commercial fishermen are concerned with marine entanglement, whale and fish migration and the effects of electromagnetic fields (which are generated by the wave energy buoys) on electro-sensitive species like sharks, rays and salmon.

Proposals include offshore buoy arrays anchored to the sea floor, smaller offshore oil-platform-like structures and onshore facilities that are built on the coastline or the end of a jetty. Two of the main players working in Oregon, Ocean Power Technologies and Finavera Renewables, claim that about seven buoys are needed to create one megawatt (MW) of power. At 150 kilowatts (KW) each, each buoy could feasibly power 60 homes.

At press time, there were only four MW of installed capacity worldwide. The United Kingdom is leading with its WaveHub project thanks to 21.5 million ($43 million) of mostly government funding. The WaveHub operates like a 10-mile-long extension cord with a power strip on the end that runs along the ocean floor and is connected to the energy grid—but takes power rather than gives it. This allows companies to hook up and test generation devices without having to build the transmission infrastructure from the ocean floor to shore. The project hopes to provide enough clean energy to power 7,500 households, which would reduce carbon emissions by almost 25,000 tons annually.

The U.S. has just one MW of capacity, but the projected capacity by 2011 varies from 116 to 120 MW. That’s enough to serve more than 46,000 homes. The total is small compared to wind or solar capacity, but it’s fair to say that the wave energy era is coming fast.

Still, many Oregonians embrace wave energy with only cautious optimism. In late 2007, the first test buoy was deployed off the west coast near Newport, Oregon. The Finavera Renewables buoy subsequently sunk (and is still on the bottom), even though the company had openly touted the buoy’s survivability rating at 100 years.

CONTACT: Finavera Renewables