It looks like the US is about to get much, much more serious about developing its vast wave energy potential. Researchers have been working at several relatively modest sites in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, and now the Energy Department has announced funding for a new, $40 million utility scale test site in the waters of the continental US, off the coast of Oregon.
Why Wave Energy?
The new wave energy test site will be built and operated under the auspices of Oregon State University’s Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center.
In a press release announcing the plan to invest up to $40 million in the nation’s first utility scale wave energy test site, the Energy Department noted that more than half of the population of the US lives within 50 miles of a coastline.
All things being equal, coastal populations are expected to grow, but getting zero emission energy to coastal regions is becoming more complex and difficult. Aging coastal nuclear power plants will most likely not be replaced, and population density limits the potential for utility scale wind farms and solar arrays on land.
Another limitation for land-based renewable energy in coastal areas is the need for new long distance transmission lines. Plans have been in place for years to bring wind power from the wind rich midwest to points east, but the new lines have had to battle against fossil fuel interests as well as local stakeholders.
One solution is to tap the waters of the US coastlines.
That’s beginning to happen in the wind energy sector on the east coast, where the relatively shallow waters of the Continental Shelf are amenable to offshore wind turbine technology.
The nation’s first offshore wind farm just went online off the coast of Rhode Island, and the Obama Administration has mapped out an ambitious plan to harvest wind energy all along the eastern seaboard. It looks like New York State’s Long Island is next in line for development.
The west coast is a different kettle of fish. The Continental Shelf drops off quickly, and the waters are too deep for conventional offshore wind turbines to be set on the ocean floor.
As a solution, the Energy Department has been pumping some significant dollars into R&D to commercialize floating wind turbines.
With the new investment of $40 million the agency appears to be broadening its focus to accelerate wave energy development, too.
The payoff could be huge, so to speak:
Recent studies estimate that America’s technically recoverable wave energy resource ranges between approximately 900–1,230 terawatt hours (TWh) per year…For context, approximately 90,000 homes can be powered by 1 TWh per year. This means that even if only a few percent of the potential is recovered, millions of homes could be powered by wave energy as the technology progresses.
The New Wave Energy Test Facility
The new facility will be called the Pacific Marine Energy Center South Energy Test Site. Along with federal dollars, unspecified non-federal funding will go into the construction.
Oregon State University has already begun pre-planning for the new facility.
The site will be up and running in less than four years, by early 2020. That’s a pretty quick turnaround, and there’s a reason for that. OSU has already spent several years in talks with local stakeholders, including fishermen, and the permitting process has been completed complete.
The new facility will be located near the city of Newport, Oregon. It will include four grid-connected berths for testing prototypes and certifying them in accordance with international standards.
The berths can accommodate arrays of wave energy devices as well as single units.
A Wave Energy Explainer
Meanwhile, back in 2013 the Energy Department issued a major report on US wave energy resources, which explains how they arrived at the figure of 900-1200 terawatt hours (or near — the report’s figures vary slightly from those used in the press release).
Check out the report if you’d like to get a taste of the complexities involved in estimating wave energy potential. Taking into consideration current design trends, the Energy Department report revolves around the emerging global standard, wave power density.
Here’s the rundown:
…a recent overview of all major coastal regions have used “wave power density” in terms of kilowatts per meter of a unit diameter circle to aggregate the total available wave energy resource for a given nation or coastal region. Such a unit-circle approach is not only consistent with accepted global practice, but also more accurately indicates the resource made available by lateral transfer of wave energy along the crests of harmonic components in a multi-directional random seaway, which enables wave diffraction to substantially re-establish wave power densities within a few kilometers of a linear array, even for fixed terminator devices.
The report also identifies limiting factors that will have a profound influence on the siting and design of wave power arrays in US coastal waters.
Wither Wave Energy?
Not for nothing, but Oregon State University’s Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center was established in 2008 under the Republican administration of President George Bush.
The institution bills itself as the “neutral voice of science and engineering to inform the public and decision-makers about the effects and capabilities of marine energy technologies.”
That certainly sounds reasonable enough, but the incoming Trump Administration may have other ideas.
On the campaign trail Donald Trump pledged to roll back the Clean Power Plan. He is notoriously dismissive of wind energy in particular and renewable energy in general.
Early in December, Trump’s transition team sent an ominously worded — and apparently illegal — questionnaire seeking the names of Energy Department employees involved in climate initiatives, and at least two of his cabinet choices (ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State and Scott Pruitt to head up the Environmental Protection Agency) are aimed squarely at quashing renewable energy initiatives in favor of gas and oil development).
Trump’s choice of former Texas Governor Rick Perry as Energy Secretary doesn’t bode well, either. Texas’s renewable energy sector blossomed in all directions (wind, solar, algae biofuel, you name it) under his tenure from late 2001 to 2014, but Texas government is set up with a “relatively weak governor.” It’s unclear how much credit the state’s top executive can take for the positive renewable energy trendline — especially given Perry’s disaffection for climate science.
In any case, it appears that the Energy Department hopes to keep the new wave energy facility motion by appealing to the President-elect’s fondness for the biggest and the best. Here’s the money quote from the press release:
The site is expected to be a flagship test facility for wave energy converters globally, playing a critical role in advancing wave energy technology into commercial viability.
Good luck with that.
Image: Pacific Marine Energy Center via Oregon State University.