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Riding Waves

Mark Ohrenschall
Con.Web, July 29, 2004

Ocean Wave Energy Demonstration in
Planning for Northwest Coast

An ocean wave energy demonstration is in planning for the Pacific Northwest coast, although it's still unknown whether a project or projects will result.

This venture is spearheaded by the Electricity Innovation Institute, an affiliate of the Electric Power Research Institute, with partners including several Northwest utilities, Bonneville Power Administration and governmental energy agencies.

"It's an energy resource that's just too important to overlook," said E2I's Roger Bedard, noting the recent emergence of international wave energy trials. "The technology is now ready for demonstration in this country to overcome the naysayers."

Potential sites have been identified off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, Maine and Hawaii, and conceptual design along with power and economic assessments are in progress for a demonstration facility in each of three of those states. A decision is expected soon whether to start detailed design, permitting and pursuit of construction financing. The Washington state portion involves environmental review assistance for an already-proposed wave energy pilot venture, a 1-megawatt-capacity plant envisioned off the Olympic Peninsula coast by developer AquaEnergy Group.

Mid-2006 would be the earliest debut for a demonstration plant under the E2I project, Bedard told Con.WEB. E2I initial reports suggest a 0.5-MW-capacity project, although specific size, cost and locations remain undetermined.

Ocean wave power is touted as a clean, abundant renewable resource that can tap the immense energy contained in endless wind-generated waves. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council in the early 1990s suggested a technical potential of up to 2,500 average megawatts from regional ocean wave energy, at an estimated cost of 22 cents per kilowatt-hour generated.

But the Council has not substantially updated that assessment, and wave energy uncertainties continue regarding costs, technology, siting, transmission, environmental impacts, maintenance and durability in harsh marine conditions, among other issues.

Demonstrating Wave Power

The Electricity Innovation Institute engages in public-private research and development, and exploring the feasibility of offshore wave energy is one of its current ventures, according to Bedard.

"E2I EPRI strives to initiate momentum towards the development of a sustainable commercial market for this technology in the U.S. and thus provide economic benefits and job creation," said its recent assessment of wave energy conversion devices.

E21 has examined candidate sites off the four participating coastal states, and reviewed ocean wave energy technologies (see below for more details).

A key upcoming milestone is deciding whether to move ahead with detailed design, permitting and financing on chosen sites using specified technologies, Bedard said. State participants will take the lead in those decisions. Plant construction would require another assent.

E2I is undertaking this venture in collaboration with utilities and government agencies, including, in the Northwest, Bonneville Power Administration, Snohomish County PUD, Puget Sound Energy, Seattle City Light and Tacoma Power.

BPA's Mike Hoffman described his agency's involvement as "reasonably minimal at the moment. We're just trying to get a sense of what it would take for EPRI to do a demonstration project." Bonneville has no inclination to fund an Oregon pilot wave energy plant, which he estimated could cost up to $1 million. But Hoffman said the federal power wholesaler would like to gauge interest, and potentially help obtain other means of support.

Snohomish County PUD also is curious about ocean wave energy, as part of its larger exploration of adding more renewable energy resources to its system, the PUD's Chris Fate told Con.WEB. This wave venture is one of the PUD's chosen EPRI initiatives, he said, and since the AquaEnergy project is already in progress, the utility opted to allocate its contribution toward the environmental assessment.

Prospective Sites, Technologies

In scouting locales for a demonstration plant, E2I looked at criteria including wave energy resource characteristics, ocean bottom conditions, electric system infrastructure, local manufacturing capabilities to build a prototype, potential conflicts with other marine uses, regulatory issues and community support.

It identified and detailed features of prospective sites in each of Oregon's seven coastal counties: Astoria in Clatsop County; Garibaldi, Tillamook County; Newport, Lincoln County; Cushman, Lane County; Reedsport, Douglas County; Coos Bay, Coos County; and Brookings, Curry County.

For Washington, E2I scrutinized Neah Bay in Clallam County; Hoquiam in Grays Harbor County; and South Bend in Pacific County.

E2I did not examine Aqua Energy's proposed site in Makah Bay, also in Clallam County. "We're certainly advocates and proponents of that" project, said Bedard, but the institute won't have any significant direct role.

AquaEnergy is seeking approvals from Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (the proposed plant site lies about three miles offshore, in OCNMS waters) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, as well as a federal matching-fund grant for research, development and field monitoring. The project timetable depends on funding, AquaEnergy chief executive officer Alla Weinstein told Con.WEB. Clallam County PUD has agreed to buy the generated power (see Con.WEB, April 29, 2003). As for technology, E2I is considering four general types, according to Bedard. One involves floats or buoys moving up and down with waves to produce electricity, as AquaEnergy proposes. Another takes energy-productive advantage of back-and-forth wave motions, like the Pelamis model from Ocean Power Delivery. A so-called overtopping device creates an offshore reservoir of sorts and generates power, hydrolike, as collected water flows back to the ocean; the Wave Dragon is an example. The fourth potential technology is known as oscillating water column, in which rising and falling waves within an enclosure generate airflow that powers a turbine.

"We're looking at all four," said Bedard, although he believes the Pelamis is the most commercially ready device at the moment.

A vast range of energy-production capacities are potentially available, according to Bedard, from as small as 20 kilowatts to as large as 4 MW. "We don't yet know the optimum size, minimum cost or maximum cost-effectivity," he said. "The technology is too immature right now."

Ocean Wave Power

Generating electricity from ocean waves has been explored for decades, but commercial-scale production has proven elusive.

Ocean Power Delivery conducted European sea trials of the Pelamis earlier this year. Energetech began construction this spring on a facility off Australia; company chief executive officer Tom Denniss called it "the first plant in the world to make wave energy commercially viable."

This resource has considerable promise, at least in theory. Waves contain highly condensed energy--the average Northwest wave can produce 25 kilowatts per meter of crest, according to E2I. This allows smaller machines than needed for wind power, Bedard said.

Waves also roll along more consistently than the wind blows or the sun shines--Bedard calls it "the least intermittent of all the intermittent renewable energy technologies." However, the E2I reports assume a 40 percent annual capacity factor, which is only slightly higher than--and in some cases comparable to--wind energy.

Wave energy also promises economic development in coastal communities, though Bedard did not have specific numbers.

Local public support for ocean wave energy is vital, Bedard said, and apparent in the AquaEnergy project and in Maine, where traditional fishing and shipbuilding industries are in decline.

A significant concern, cited by both Hoffman and Bedard, is the hardiness of wave energy devices amid big winds, swells and other challenging elements of the ocean environment. "Quite a bit of work was done in the 1970s and quite a few [machines] didn't survive," said Bedard, although he added many current technologies are designed to withstand extreme forces.

Another unknown, he said, is the cost of installation and operations/maintenance for these offshore energy-generating stations.

Ocean wave energy also faces other issues.

One is environmental impact. AquaEnergy's proposal, for example, has generated concerns among OCNMS officials about its potential effect on sediment dynamics, seafloor habitat, marine mammals and ocean views in the federal marine sanctuary.

Another matter is transmission connections, particularly for high-volume ocean wave energy development. Washington's ocean coast is essentially bereft of high-voltage transmission, noted senior resource analyst Jeff King of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, while the Oregon coast is reasonably well-served with high-voltage wires and available transmission space to deliver electricity east to load centers.

King believes that if technology and cost concerns are resolved, the biggest barriers to Northwest ocean wave energy are environmental and transmission questions.

The Council's 1991 power and conservation plan suggested a regional technical potential for ocean wave energy of 400 MW to 2,500 aMW, while cautioning that several factors--maintenance, capacity factors, line losses and siting limitations--could diminish the actual number. The Council hasn't thoroughly examined ocean wave energy since, King said, given the relatively high costs and apparent lack of major technological advances. "It's tough to consider this as an available resource," he said, but it's worth monitoring.

"I think a demonstration project would be great," said King. He believes wave power and offshore wind energy in the shallow southern Strait of Georgia are "the two ocean energy technologies that conceivably might show some promise in the Northwest."

Related Pages:
Electricity Innovation Institute Offshore Wave Power Feasibility Demonstration
AquaEnergy Group

by Mark Ohrenschall
Riding Waves
Con.Web - July 29, 2004

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