Ocean energy ideas proliferate

Nov 19, 2010

Ideas for harnessing the power of the Pacific Ocean to create clean energy are proliferating.  The rush of creativity is creating a flood of visits by electric engineers to coastal communities.

Powerful Waves Inspire Ideas

It’s a mouth watering display if you’re an ocean energy developer:  huge waves crash against the jetties at the mouth of Tillamook Bay, Oregon.  Columns of spray shoot in the air.  One company is thinking about redesigning these jetties with electricity generators built inside.

“When the waves crash or hit against this device, water fills these chambers and runs into the back where the turbine is. Basically it’s very similar to a hydroelectric dam where water just flows through and drives a turbine,” said Stephanie Thornton, American program director for the aptly named Norwegian company Wave Energy AS.

Thornton describes her industry as being in its infancy. It’s a period of great experimentation with a panoply of creative technologies.

“Once they figure out if it can work from a technical standpoint, then it’s the business side of it. The economics may be the key issue,” Thornton said.

Startups Abound

For every failed pioneer company there are about two new startups show up on our coast by my count.  A Scottish firm called Aquamarine Power is one of several new foreign companies scouting here.  Company rep Theresa Wisner recently described her firm’s near-shore device to the Tillamook County Commission.

It’s called the Oyster.  It’s a very large mechanical flap resting on the sea bottom.

“What happens is a wave comes in from the ocean. It forces the top of the Oyster down onto some pistons. Those pistons force that water into high pressure water line that goes ashore to a Pelton wheel, which is one of the oldest ways of generating electricity,” said Wisner.

She was followed to the podium by Kevin Bannister, of Seattle-based Principle Power.  Bannister describes his company’s plans for a floating wind farm offshore of Manzanita or Netarts, Oregon.

“The design came from the oil and gas industry. So, semi-submersible platforms like this one are not terribly new. The integration with a wind turbine however is a new idea," said Bannister.

Yet another company diving in is a Salem-based startup, M3 Wave Energy Systems.  Its idea relies on wave pressure passing over air-filled pillows on the sea floor.  The pulses compress air, which can then be used to spin an electric turbine.

Tillamook PUD manager Pat Ashby has seen even more far out ideas cross his desk.

“We’ve become kind of a bulls-eye for world developers,” said Ashby.

Buoy as Power Generator

First to connect to the grid will likely be a bobbing buoy generator next year off Reedsport. Ashby said the floating wind farm also seems plausible near term because wind power is “well understood.”

“The others have got new technology that needs to be tested. It’s not really existing anywhere in the world right now. And the devices that produce the energy and their ability to withstand saltwater -- corrosive elements -- need a lot of work yet,” added Ashby.

Ashby said community acceptance also needs some work yet. At the Port of Garibaldi, Oregon, Darren Mobley prepares his boat for winter crabbing. He’s among the many fishermen and crabbers who remain skeptical of ocean energy.

“They’re talking about a big area around them that would be closed to fishing. We can’t afford to have any more fishing ground taken from us,” said Mobley.

Electric generation attached to a jetty is the only idea that wins favor from this fisherman. Another boat owner wondered why she should give up her “beautiful ocean to make” costly electricity, which may just go to California.