Oregon State University is building a facility off the Oregon Coast to test the viability of ocean waves as a renewable energy source. But when and whether waves will become a predictable, affordable source of alternative energy remains to be seen.
A bright-blue sky can turn gray without warning off the Oregon Coast, where storm season churns and pours from November through March or April. In the summer months, wave heights average around 1.4 meters; in the winter they double in size. But no matter the height of the waves — whether the water rolls gently or roils — the ocean is always moving, tides pulled in and out by the gravity of the moon. Storms can descend quickly.
But when it comes to the technology that might capture energy from those waves, the journey has been slow.
Wave energy is produced through tidal movement, a source of renewable energy similar to wind and solar in which the movement of natural elements is captured and converted to electricity. Waves off the coast of the United States could theoretically produce 2.64 trillion kilowatt-hours each year, about 66% of electricity generated in 2020. And yet while wave-energy facilities have been operating for decades in France, Korea and several other countries, the U.S. has yet to establish an operational site.
The first major wave-energy project was launched in Scotland in 1974, when Stephen Salter tethered house-sized buoys he called “ducks” to the ocean floor. But instead of capturing the ocean’s energy, the buoys were overcome by the waves and tossed out to sea. The sheer force and volatility of the ocean continues to challenge scientists and engineers, nearly five decades later.
But today the coastal community of Newport is poised to become the central hub for testing and refining wave energy technology in the U.S.
In 2016 the Department of Energy first announced funding for a wave-energy testing facility, a project to be led by the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center at Oregon State University. Extensive site assessment, impact studies and community outreach followed.
This year the OSU facility, now PacWave South, is under construction and the DOE has awarded $25 million to eight different projects that will comprise the first round of open-water testing. The site will be prepermitted, with all necessary infrastructure in place for testing, allowing researchers to focus on the technologies without worrying about lengthy and complicated permitting processes.
PacWave South's plans. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
“Harnessing the unrelenting power of the ocean is a clean, innovative and sustainable way to curtail carbon pollution — benefiting American businesses and families, especially coastal communities hit hardest by the impacts of climate change,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm in a press release announcing the first round of project funding.
Four steel conduits have now been installed below the seafloor, connecting the testing site 7 miles offshore to the onshore facility where researchers will be based.
As the seasons change, coastal communities prepare for visitors to fill their beaches and businesses while researchers, scientists and developers will be looking far beyond the coastline, toward a potential future for wave-energy technology that is over a decade in the making.
A Measured Approach to Wave Energy
There are still many unknowns when it comes to wave energy and its potential impact on seas and coastlines, as new technologies are being developed and refined. For nearly a decade now, stakeholders and scientists have been weighing those impacts as they relate to the site at Newport.
Back in the early 2000s, when the conversation around wave energy in Oregon was first gaining momentum, several companies were making moves to develop commercial projects. Lincoln County Commissioner Kaety Jacobson was working for Oregon Sea Grant at the time, collaborating with researchers and fisheries on selecting the right location and better understanding how they might mitigate environmental and industry impacts. Developers, meanwhile, were going straight to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for permits.
“At the time, there was no front-end process with the state,” says Jacobson. “[Developers] just filed and said, ‘This is where we want to go.’”
This was a big red flag to those who were working hard to select not just any site but the right one.
“They didn’t feel like the potential impacts were known,” Jacobson says of local stakeholders, including community members and conservationists. “They didn’t feel like the technology was ready.”
Lincoln County Commissioner Kaety Jacobson. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
In response, many interested parties —including local fishermen, led by the FINE commission (Fishermen Involved in Natural Energy) — threw their support more aggressively behind the testing facility.
“Providing a test area is a sane and safe approach to looking at new technologies,” says Bob Eder, a commercial fisherman and member of FINE since 2007. “The business approach, unfortunately, is to stimulate excitement and raise money. But we’re talking about new technologies in a very challenging space.”
Eder worked with Oregon Sea Grant to educate the public on the impact of commercial operations versus a testing facility, and saw public response lean overwhelmingly in favor of testing. Kaety Hildenbrand and Flaxen Conway of Oregon Sea Grant, along with Bob Eder, received a Strategic Impact Award from OSU for that research and community outreach, which proved crucial in eventually securing funds from the United States Department of Energy to create the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center.
In the decades since, the fishing community has continued to be largely supportive of the project as it’s evolved and moved forward. Eder says this type of support is unusual for an industry that is so vulnerable to changes in the ocean.
“We don’t just look at [the ocean],” says Eder. “We make our living out there. The usual response for this kind of thing is folding your arms and saying, ‘Not in my backyard.’ And there’s a really good reason for that attitude.”
But Eder says while his industry has worked hard to be more sustainable in how they fish, climate change continues to impact them in ways they can’t control.
“Now that we manage ourselves so well and take care of the environment, the biggest problem we’re facing is climate change,” Eder says. According to Eder, his peers in the industry understand that alternative energies are necessary in the fight against climate change — a fight that will eventually destroy their livelihood if fossil fuels aren’t largely replaced with renewable alternatives. “We recognize the need for that.”
Environmental Necessity and Concern
Burke Hales, a carbon-cycle oceanographer and chief scientist for PacWave, has been studying the impacts of climate change on ocean ecology for many years. It is clear and undeniable, he says, that an increase of carbon in the ocean is having adverse impacts on ocean life.
“We’ve done lots of work with the shellfish industry,” says Hales. “They seem to be the canary in the coal mine.”
By that analogy, climate change has killed the canary. In the latest IPCC report, released earlier this year, scientists delivered the sobering news that we likely can’t avoid a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees; certain tipping points have already been passed and the impact of climate change will continue to get worse.
But there is still time to curb even further warming, with a massive shift away from fossil fuels toward renewables like wind and solar. Wave energy could become a valuable part of the solution.
But the ocean is also a fragile system, one that’s struggling in the face of climate change. An increase of carbon in the water has proved deadly to Northwest oysters, among other shellfish. Warming waters and worsening storms have made fishing seasons less reliable and more dangerous.
Dr. Sarah Henkel, associate director for the Pacific Marine Energy Center has been leading the research on environmental impacts related to PacWave. So far, that’s meant monitoring the current conditions and the ways in which climate change is already affecting the ocean. When testing begins at PacWave, researchers like Henkel will have a baseline from which they can spot any changes that might be attributed to the wave-energy activity.
Henkel and her team have been surveying everything from sediment on the ocean floor to seabirds flying above. They’re listening to the underwater soundscape and observing marine animals.
Once testing activities are underway, this work will be broken down into monitoring and mitigation: continuing to observe the conditions and how they change, and determining best practices for avoiding or minimizing any changes that might harm the local ecosystem.
There are several potential negative impacts to local wildlife. One is that marine life could be attracted to the infrastructure, leading to the buildup of artificial reef and attraction of predatory species. Electromagnetic fields could also impact animals’ feeding and navigation behaviors; noise created by the equipment could disrupt marine species’ echolocation; and marine species might get entangled in or injured by the devices.
Henkel says PacWave will offer a unique opportunity to monitor wave energy’s impact on a hyperlocal scale, with just one or a few devices being tested at once.
“Within our test bed, you have to accept that there will be some changes,” says Henkel. “But we do not anticipate, from our test project, that there will be major environmental changes, population-level changes, beyond the footprint of our project.”
That’s a big part of why this testing facility has garnered so much support. By focusing on one or a handful of projects at a time, through testing and research rather than development, scientists will better understand how to make wave energy not just work but work in a way that is sustainable for the local community, existing industries and the environment.
Rough Water Moving Forward
We know that energy can be harnessed from the ocean, and that energy can be used as a sustainable source of power. But the ocean is a tricky place — both more and less reliable than wind and sun. Wind turbines and solar panels are dependent on weather conditions. The ocean, on the other hand, never stops moving. But that movement can sometimes overwhelm the systems meant to capture it. The waters off of Oregon are known to be especially rough.
“Ships sink out there with unfortunate frequency,” says Hales. “These devices won’t have the luxury of going into port when the weather is bad. They need to understand not just whether their tech will produce electricity but whether they will survive.”
PacWave South will be the place to figure that out. There is no definitive date for when the facility will be ready for testing, but Hales says an optimistic target is summer 2024.
We’re still a long way off from wave energy aligning with wind and solar on efficiency and cost. But as PacWave South moves closer to operational, the local impacts of the project are already being felt. Newport has long been a hub for marine research, as home to OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) research vessels. Now it will be a destination for understanding the future of the ocean, in which renewable power is harnessed to steer our planet away from the harmful impacts of climate change.
High density polyethylene, or HDPE conduits have been installed underground from the Driftwood Beach cable landing site to the utility connection and monitoring facility, which is currently under construction. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
A recent economic development study for Newport shows, for the first time, marine research and science as part of the pie.
Henkel says she’s seeing a surge of interest from graduate students looking to work with her and her team on PacWave.
“It’s very exciting,” she says. “We’re addressing potential impacts of climate change and trying to come up with ways of producing energy without carbon. At the same time, we want to make sure we’re doing it in the most environmentally responsible way. That’s very appealing to students.”
Unfortunately, the speed at which the project is progressing means students will have to be patient on the timeline for when they can be involved. That’s what it takes to move forward responsibly. A slow process means there’s time to continue reaching out to the community, monitoring current conditions and anticipating the impacts.
“We don’t know everything there is to know about these technologies,” says Eder. “But we know this project is going to be monitored responsibly.”
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