News / USA

Catching a Wave - and its Energy

Marine energy developers explore whether electricity can be generated in the ocean at affordable prices

Rendering of floating offshore wind farm
Rendering of floating offshore wind farm

Multimedia

Audio
Tom Banse

One of the newest sources of alternative energy is also one of the oldest - water power. The 19th century water wheel, though, bears no resemblance to the 21st century contraptions powered by ocean waves.

The wave energy sector has been slow to coalesce around one technology. Quite the opposite. Unconventional ideas are blooming like algae along America's Pacific Coast in a proliferation of creative electric engineering.

Harnessing the power of waves

The steady, powerful pounding of the ocean surf at this time of year is a reminder why marine energy developers love the Pacific Northwest. Huge waves crash against the jetties at the mouth of Tillamook Bay on the Oregon Coast. Columns of spray shoot in the air.

"The wave energy potential is very large here," says Stephanie Thornton, American program director for the Wave Energy AS. The Norwegian company proposes redesigning jetties and breakwaters like these to include electricity generators built inside.

"It's designed in such a way that it has open chambers on the wave facing side," Thornton explains. "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."

Wave Energy AS program director Stephanie Thornton hopes to harness the power of the crashing waves near Barview, Oregon.
Wave Energy AS program director Stephanie Thornton hopes to harness the power of the crashing waves near Barview, Oregon.

The industry is in its infancy. It's a period of great experimentation, overflowing with creative technologies.

"Once they figure out if it can work from a technical standpoint, then it's the business side of it," Thornton says. "The economics may be the key issue."

Innovation

The Scottish firm, Aquamarine Power, is one of several other foreign companies scouting here.

Aquamarine outreach coordinator Theresa Wisner recently described her firm's near-shore device to the Tillamook County Commission. 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," says Wisner. "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."

Wisner was followed to the podium in Tillamook by a representative for Seattle, Washington-based Principle Power. Kevin Bannister described his company's plans for floating wind farms offshore of Oregon and Portugal.

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

Yet another company diving into the competition is a Salem, Oregon 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 Public Utility District manager Pat Ashby has seen even more far out ideas cross his desk.

"We've become kind of a bulls-eye for world developers," says Ashby.

Rendering of wave energy park
Rendering of wave energy park

Prototype ocean energy devices are generating electricity in Scottish, Hawaiian and Australian waters, but not here yet.

Coming first to the U.S. West Coast will likely be a bobbing buoy generator next year. Eventually, a field of 10 floating buoys, anchored to the ocean floor, would bob up and down with the swells. The movement creates electricity. Ashby says a 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."

Winning people over

Ashby says 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 worry about how harnessing ocean energy will impact them.

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

Wave Energy's plans to put electric generators inside the breakwaters is the only idea that wins favor from Mobley.

U.S. and foreign governments are keen on the sector and are pumping in lots of funds to float more prototypes. But whether electricity can be generated in the ocean at affordable prices remains an open question

You May Like

UN Ambassador Power Highlights Plight of Women Prisoners

She launches the 'Free the 20' campaign, aimed at profiling women being deprived of their freedom around the world More

Satellite Launch Sparks Spectacular Light Show

A slight delay in a satellite launch lit up the Florida sky early this morning More

Fleeing IS Killings in Syria, Family Reaches Bavaria

Exhausted, scared and under-nourished, Khalil and Maha's tale mirrors those of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries who have left their homes in the hopes of finding a better life More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs