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The Power of Teamwork: Creating energy from ocean waves

Reedsport, a sleepy logging town on the southern Oregon coast, may be getting a shot of new energy thanks to a partnership between the community, engineers at Oregon State University, state and federal agencies, and members of private industry.

"It could be a whole new industry. We could be the nation's wave energy headquarters. In a few years time on the Oregon coast there could be wave parks generating power back onto the grid and providing jobs for the people living in the region."-- Annette von Jouanne
von Jouanne and Wallace on beach

This past summer, Annette von Jouanne and Alan Wallace, professors in OSU’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, led the first of what will be several community meetings centered around bringing wave energy to the Oregon coast. In front of a standing room only crowd, they answered questions about energy potential, new jobs, environmental consequences, advanced technology, and dependence on foreign energy sources.

Recognized as national leaders of ocean wave energy, von Jouanne and Wallace have developed several direct drive ocean buoys capable of converting the power in ocean waves to electrical energy. The coast near Reedsport has been identified as the optimal site in the nation for wave energy development. The overall energy potential there is enough to power about 20 percent of the state’s total electricity needs, according to von Jouanne and Wallace, and it is believed that with proper location and planning, converting wave energy to electricity may be one of the most environmentally benign ways to generate electrical power.

“Ocean waves have tremendous potential as an energy source,” von Jouanne says. “The energy density in water is much higher than it is in air. We can get more power with less space, and we can know within a 10-hour window what our energy capabilities are, and we can match them to the need.”

The OSU-developed buoys are designed to be anchored 1-2 miles offshore in water depths greater than 100 feet. At about 15 feet across by 12 feet tall, the buoys will sit neutrally buoyant in the water, and will be almost impossible to see from land with the naked eye. The research team pictures an array of buoys, or wave park, placed within a sectioned off area of a yet to be determined size, however, it is estimated that 10 square miles could power the entire state of Oregon.

“The key is creating a survivable, reliable, efficient system,” von Jouanne says of the buoys. “The ocean is very destructive, but we are at a point where we believe the buoys can be manufactured to survive the harsh environment.”

Reedsport, Oregon already has much of the infrastructure needed for a wave energy facility intact, including this inactive paper mill north of town.
reedsport

Wallace adds that the development of wave energy is currently 15-20 years behind wind energy, a technology that is just reaching its optimal performance. He says that just like wind energy, wave systems will be expensive at first then drop in price as the industry becomes competitive. Currently, there are operating wave energy systems in Europe, but the technology is different than that being developed at OSU.

“This is groundbreaking research that can be of enormous value to society, and it’s amazing all of the people who want to get involved,” Wallace says.

The College of Engineering, the Oregon Department of Energy, and the Electric Power Research Institute are hoping to establish a wave energy conversion research, development, and demonstration center at a disused paper mill located next to the electrical substation in Gardiner, just north of Reedsport. The mill, which has been inactive for several years, already has a number of features that could substantially reduce the cost of the project, including available power transmission capability and an existing outflow pipe. The pipe could be used to house the power cable that would run from the buoys to the Gardiner power station where the energy would enter into the grid.

The facility would create a need for new local jobs, both in the construction phase and in daily operations, promote development, and add to the state’s goal of energy self-sufficiency. It would receive direction and support from OSU and its Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. In addition, the College of Engineering is home to the Motor Systems Resource Facility, the highest-power energy systems laboratory at any university in the nation, and the O. H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory. Both resources would be available and used by researchers working at the site.

A National Science Foundation graphic of OSU's direct drive buoy.
NSF Diagram

“It could be a whole new industry,” says von Jouanne. “We could be the nation’s wave energy headquarters. In a few years time on the Oregon coast there could be wave parks generating power back onto the grid and providing jobs for the people living in the region.”

The response to the project has been tremendous. Stories about the research, and the first community meetings, have been picked up by national press and run in publications ranging from engineering trade journals to the Washington Post and Popular Mechanics. Von Jouanne says she is constantly responding to phone calls and e-mails about the project, and the possibility for similar wave energy generation sites elsewhere.

“The really great part is sharing the vision with others, with our students, and with the public,” von Jouanne says. “People are very receptive, and our involved students are being heavily recruited by industry.”

For the past two years von Jouanne and Wallace have been funding the project with a $270,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and additional funding from the Oregon Sea Grant, the Department of Energy, Columbia Power Technologies, and regional utilities. The next phase of the project will require about $5 million. Language has been added to state and federal energy bills that could funnel money toward the project, however von Jouanne and Wallace are also actively looking for industry partners and private funding.