CORVALLIS, Ore. - Significant advances in university research and other studies in the past two years are pointing toward Oregon as the possible epicenter of wave energy development in the United States.
This may lead to a major initiative to expand a technology that is now in its engineering infancy, and tap the constant heave of the oceans for a new era of clean, affordable and renewable electrical power.
Electrical engineers at Oregon State University have pioneered the development of technologies to take advantage of wave power in ways that are reliable, maintainable and able to survive a hostile ocean environment. The OSU College of Engineering also has a host of other facilities that would make it an ideal site for more advanced research.
Last fall, the Electric Power Research Institute finished a study which concluded that a site off Reedsport, Ore., would be the optimal location in the entire nation to develop a wave energy test and demonstration facility.
And on Wednesday, EPRI and the Oregon Department of Energy will meet in Portland, Ore., to bring together potential partners in this field to explore the future of wave energy development in the U.S.
At that meeting, OSU officials will present their vision for a U.S. Ocean Energy Research and Demonstration Center based in Oregon, which they believe could move this promising technology from a laboratory concept to a major contributor to the nation's energy needs. The center would evaluate existing wave energy systems and help create, test and implement new ones.
"The world's oceans are an extremely promising source of clean energy," said Annette von Jouanne, an OSU professor of electrical engineering. "The technology is still in experimental stages, but we've made enough progress in the past couple years that it's time to start planning a working research and demonstration facility. And the new EPRI study indicates that a site off the central Oregon coast is probably the best place in the country to do that."
The Reedsport site, experts say, has a combination of good wave action, an appropriate undersea terrain, and the presence of existing marine access and terrestrial electric transmission lines that would facilitate the creation of a test center.
OSU, in addition, has the highest-power energy systems laboratory of any university in the nation, a proximity to the Reedsport site, one of the leading research programs on ocean energy in the country, and the unique capabilities of the university's O. H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, including a 340-foot-long wave flume and the world's largest tsunami wave basin.
Compared to other forms of renewable energy production such as wind turbines, the development of ocean and wave energy has barely begun. But there are some operating systems in Europe, and the theoretical potential of this clean, inexhaustible form of energy is enormous - experts estimate that 0.2 percent of the ocean's untapped energy could power the entire world.
"The development of wave energy right now is probably 15-20 years behind wind energy, which is just now starting to achieve some optimal production technologies," said Alan Wallace, the co-principal investigator at OSU on these projects, and a professor of electrical engineering.
"And just like wind energy, these systems will be more expensive at first, and then the cost will come down and become very competitive," Wallace said. "But this is really groundbreaking research that can be of enormous value to society, and it's amazing all of the people who want to get involved."
The list of potential collaborators is long, von Jouanne said, but already includes the Oregon Department of Energy, EPRI, the Bonneville Power Administration, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, National Science Foundation, the Oregon Sea Grant Program, U.S. Department of Energy, Lincoln County Public Utility District, and U.S. Navy. Not to mention students from all over the world who are contacting the OSU engineers, hoping to join in research on the energy technology of the future.
"The Oregon Department of Energy is interested in the potential for wave energy in Oregon, which may prove to be a viable resource for clean, renewable energy," said Justin Klure, senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Energy. "At the upcoming meeting, we'll discuss the current state of wave energy technology, and coordinate with those individuals who may play a role in bringing a demonstration project to Oregon.
"There is much to discuss, including the costs of a demonstration project, the permitting and siting issues, the need for collaborative research, and other challenges."
There are multiple ways to tap the energy of the ocean, including its tides, thermal features and salinity. But wave energy appears to be the most promising and closest to commercial production. In recent studies, OSU has already created three prototypes of devices that could be used to harness wave energy - a permanent magnet linear generator, a permanent magnet rack and pinion gearbox, and a contactless direct drive generator buoy.
Some systems are very complex, and more vulnerable than others to the vagaries of severe ocean conditions. One of the most promising "direct drive" systems being studied at OSU is essentially a buoy that just moves up and down with large ocean swells, anchored about one or two miles offshore in more than 100 feet of water.
"What you want are nice, gradual, repetitive ocean swells," Wallace said. "Inside the buoy, this causes electrical coils to move through a magnetic field, inducing a voltage and creating electricity."
With this type of system, it would be possible to crank the buoy beneath the ocean surface to survive severe storm conditions or tsunamis, von Jouanne said.
The OSU engineers say that a buoy about 12 feet wide and 12 feet tall, rolling up and down in the ocean swells could produce 250 kilowatts per unit - a modest-sized network of about 200 such buoys could power the business district of downtown Portland. And the winter, the period of highest wave energy electrical production, also coincides with peak electricity demands in the Pacific Northwest.
"One of the other extremely promising possibilities with wave energy is the ability to scale these systems either up or down in size, whatever you need to fit the electrical demand," von Jouanne said. "Small systems could even be used with individual boats at anchor to generate their own electricity."
"We haven't even begun to figure out all of the potential uses of wave energy," she said. "But wherever this takes us, we believe that Oregon can and should be the national leader."