OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Scientists Mull Ecological Impacts of Wave Energy Projects

11/01/2007

NEWPORT, Ore. – As public interest in wave energy technology increases, scientists are beginning to explore potential ecological implications that may arise from the creation of wave energy parks along the West Coast.

A recent workshop at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center raised many questions, participants say, and outlined important areas of research and outreach to address.

“Right now, the wave energy technology is ahead of the related ecological research,” said George Boehlert, director of the Hatfield Center and a professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU. “It is important to begin addressing these questions because the potential benefits from a clean, renewable energy source like ocean waves are enormous.”

The workshop afforded many scientists their first exposure to planned deployments of wave energy-collecting devices and the technology that will make it possible.

“The extraction of wave energy has the potential to alter patterns of currents and sand transport in the nearshore environment,” said Paul Komar, professor emeritus in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “In our discussions, however, we outlined some interesting approaches that may address this issue.”

A full report on the scientists’ initial analysis of ecological challenges relating to wave energy will be available early in 2008, Boehlert said.

More than a dozen different wave energy projects are in the research and development phase along the West Coast, and new technologies developed by researchers in OSU’s College of Engineering and elsewhere suggest that wave-generated electricity may be feasible both technologically and economically. OSU is recognized as the country's top academic center for wave-power research. The university is building a national wave-energy research and demonstration facility off the coast and an indoor lab to simulate ocean conditions.

The State of Oregon recently made a $4.2 million investment aimed at developing “responsible wave energy,” according to Gail Achterman, director of the Institute for Natural Resources at OSU and the university’s representative on the board of the newly formed Oregon Wave Energy Trust.

“Responsible development means assuring that the ecological effects are understood and addressed, and that coastal communities are fully engaged in the decision-making process to assure that wave energy development complements existing ocean uses,” Achterman said.

Boehlert points out that potential ecological impacts of wave energy may depend on the size, location and structure of the “parks” that would house a series of buoys.

“Ecological sensitivity is greatest closer to shore – say, out to an ocean depth of about 40 meters – and that also is a critical area economically in terms of crabbing and other fisheries,” Boehlert said. “Whether that aligns with the optimal locations for a wave energy facility is something that will have to be determined.”

Among the other questions posed by researchers:

• Will the size of wave energy parks affect local water circulation and currents, as well as the migration of crab, salmon and whales?

• Will the noise from the buoys have an impact on marine creatures depending on acoustics, from herring to whales?

• What impact, if any, will energy parks have on species that use electromagnetic field sensing for orientation or feeding, including salmon, crab, sturgeon, sharks and rays?

• Can the buoys and mooring lines be constructed to avoid entanglement of seabirds above the surface, and turtles, whales and other creatures underwater?

“Many of these questions are similar in nature to concerns raised when large electrical power lines started criss-crossing the terrestrial landscape,” said Greg McMurray of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development and a member of the workshop steering committee. “The connectivity issues are similar, but the animals’ life histories and their habitats are a bit different.”

Boehlert says the workshop was intended to develop a general conceptual framework of the physical and biological relationships that can be applied to evaluate specific wave energy projects. The next step, he says, is to synthesize their discussion and create a research agenda that can address some of the concerns.

“It’s important to note that the scientists are not taking a stand ‘for’ or ‘against’ wave energy development,” Boehlert pointed out. “As ecologists, we strive for better understanding of the potential impacts of change, whether they are human-induced or natural.”

The Hatfield Marine Science Center workshop was supported by numerous state and federal agencies, industry and others.

More information about the workshop is available at http://hmsc.oregonstate.edu/waveenergy.