Gauteng and NW Province

Electricity from waves

By Kirk Johnson

PORTLAND, Ore. — About 15 years ago, this environmentally conscious state with a fir tree on its license plates began pushing the idea of making renewable energy from the ocean waves that bob and swell on the Pacific horizon. But then one of the first test-buoy generators, launched with great fanfare, promptly sank. It was not a good start.

But time and technology turned the page, and now the first commercially licensed grid-connected wave-energy device in the nation, designed by a New Jersey company, Ocean Power Technologies is in its final weeks of testing before a planned launch in October. The federal permit for up to 10 generators came last month, enough, the company says, to power about 1,000 homes. When engineers are satisfied that everything is ready, a barge will carry the 260-ton pioneer to its anchoring spot about two and a half miles offshore near the city of Reedsport, on the central coast.

“All eyes are on the O.P.T. buoy,” said Jason Busch, the executive director of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, a nonprofit state-financed group that has spent $10 million in the last six years on scientific wave-energy research and grants, including more than $430,000 to Ocean Power Technologies alone. Making lots of electricity on the buoy and getting it to shore to turn on lights would be great, Mr. Busch said. Riding out the storm-tossed seas through winter? Priceless. “It has to survive,” he said.

Adding to the breath-holding nature of the moment, energy experts and state officials said, is that Oregon is also in the final stages of a long-term coastal mapping and planning project that is aiming to produce, by late this year or early next, a blueprint for where wave energy could be encouraged or discouraged based on potential conflicts with fishing, crabbing and other marine uses.

Fishing industry lobbyists and lawyers worry that a surge of wave energy could repeat what happened when hydroelectricity came to the Pacific Northwest in a big way starting in the 1930s. Builders then did not think through the dense ecological web that nature had devised around the tens of millions of salmon — suddenly blocked from their inland spawning routes — that had over millenniums become a cornerstone species for everything from bears to birds.

“Our greatest concern is that they don’t do what they did with dams — put a lot of them in the ocean and then just stand back and see what happens,” said John Holloway, the secretary of Oregon Anglers, a political action committee for recreational fishing. “We’re advocating a go-slow approach.”

In a nod to environmental concerns, the buoy was redesigned to remove all hydraulic fluids, which some critics feared could contaminate the water in the event of an accident; rack-and-pinion gears now drive the mechanics. The three anchoring tethers, said Michael G. Kelly, the vice president of operations at Ocean Power Technologies, were also built to withstand a 100-year storm, but also with enough redundancies that even if two anchors failed the third would be enough to keep the buoy in place.

Copyright © 2012 The New York Times

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