OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Report: Public wants slow, careful approach to wave energy

11/18/2009

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new report summarizing public reactions to wave energy development in the Pacific Northwest suggests that many people are cautiously supportive, but want a “go slow” approach that entails careful research and testing before significant use – an approach that could pose obstacles to faster development decisions made by private industry and strong advocacy for alternative energy at the state level.

The report, prepared by researchers at Oregon State University for the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, found that a slim majority of 52 percent of respondents were generally positive about wave energy, but substantial numbers had reservations or didn’t know enough about it to form an opinion.

“Different people and different groups have varying opinions, depending on whether they’re more interested in jobs, energy, fishing rights, the environment or other issues,” said Flaxen Conway, editor and co-author of the report and a professor of sociology at OSU. “But one thing we’re hearing pretty consistently is they want a lot of solid research to work out all the kinks before we make a serious commitment to wave energy.

“Some state officials are pushing this pretty hard, maybe too hard for some people’s taste. Many coastal residents and others want to be heard, like all of us they are often skeptical of change, and in some pretty crowded community meetings it’s clear they want answers to their questions before going to commercial scale. They recognize the value of space and place in the ocean. And there are a lot of concerned people in the fishing industry who don’t want this to be just one more thing working against them.”

OSU, Conway noted, is working to answer many of the technological and environmental questions, such as whether this new form of energy will work, how cost effective it can be, what technologies are the most promising, what impacts they might have on marine life and the ocean floor, and many other issues.

And in the past two years, a major social research effort has been under way to determine the “human dimensions” of wave energy, through six different but related projects. The goal, Conway said, is to fully listen to and understand the knowledge about wave energy and perspective of many stakeholder groups – the public, energy industry, conservation groups, fishing community, recreational users, government officials and others.

“It’s difficult for a lot of people to know what to believe and who to trust,” Conway said. “Our findings suggest they trust their local government officials and academic experts the most, and private industry and the news media the least. There’s a lot of work still to do here before everyone feels informed and engaged.”

Wave energy, Conway said, has gone from almost nonexistent a decade ago to a form of alternative energy that’s now getting serious consideration at national levels, along with all of the scientific, commercial, public and political attention that entails. Experts say that 0.2 percent of the ocean’s untapped energy could power the world. Primarily because of its large ocean wave resource, Oregon is one focus of this debate – and the state has committed itself to providing 25 percent of its electricity needs from renewable energy by 2025.

Among the observations in the recent report:

  • Some of the biggest conflicts, as might be expected, relate to permits and siting of proposed wave energy developments.
  • Strong support exists for both technological and environmental research to be completed before large scale commercial projects are allowed.
  • The biggest supporters of wave energy are conservative, better-educated males, but the general level of knowledge about energy issues in the state is fairly high across the board.
  • A collaborative and inclusive approach to siting wave energy plants and monitoring environmental issues would help avoid political battles later on.
  • Truly sustainable energy sources have to consider all economic, environmental and social dimensions.
  • Significant work is needed in mapping the ocean floor.
  • Primary public information sources include the Internet and local news media, and efforts to inform various interest groups should include work in both those mediums.

“People really should not underestimate the social dimension of this issue,” Conway said.

“It’s not just a case of developing technologies that work and finding industrial partners who want to develop them,” she continued. “People care about the environment, they care about existing uses of the ocean, they care about their concerns being addressed, they care about the ocean view from their porch. All of these things matter.”