THEY ARE STRANGE METAL CREATURES, bright red or yellow; one looks like a missile, another like a pair of outstretched wings. And one is so bizarre that you might say it resembles an oil platform topped with a gargantuan bullhorn. Outfitted with turbines and pistons, and moored to the ocean floor with heavy chains or columns of concrete and steel, each machine is designed for a single purpose: to capture the energy of ocean waves and turn it into clean, green electricity.
Just as wind energy companies battled during the 1970s to prove that their turbine designs were the very best at converting wind to usable electricity, some 50 companies now are vying to win the wave energy technology race. And in the United States, that battle is being waged right here, along the Oregon Coast.
“At some point, the oil and gas are going to run out,” says George Taylor, CEO of New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technologies. In April 2007, Taylor took his wave energy company to Wall Street, attracting investments of more than $90 million. Now Ocean Power Technologies is gunning to hook up one of its machines—which resemble huge navigational buoys—to the power grid in Reedsport by summer 2009. It also wants to build a power plant near Coos Bay that would produce enough electricity to power 30,000 homes.
Taylor’s company is one of six or so that have identified Oregon as an ideal place to produce wave energy, owing partly to what Ted Brekken, co-director of Oregon State University’s Wallace Energy Systems and Renewables Facility, calls our “strong wave climate.” (Translation: Our waves are big, consistent, and packed with power.) Perhaps more important is the underwater geography near our shores. To avoid visual clutter on the horizon, wave energy machines typically are sited one to three miles from land, and the ocean floor off the Oregon Coast remains sandy and relatively shallow even at those distances—which makes mooring the machines easier and less expensive.
Still, the wave energy industry is in its infancy. Just a half-dozen wave farms (all of them off the coasts of European countries) actually are delivering electricity to grids, and which designs will prevail remains to be seen. To beat out the competition, a machine must be able to produce enough cheap power to justify the cost of building it in the first place. It must be resilient enough to survive monster waves and gale-force winds at sea. And, most important, the machine must prove so reliable that venture capitalists will fork over the millions of dollars needed to build power plants using the technology. Otherwise, the machine is destined for the “Valley of Death”—a term entrepreneurs use to describe the funding gap between the (relatively low-cost) research phase of an emerging technology and its (extremely expensive) full-scale development.
To avoid such a dismal outcome, some European Union countries have dipped into their public coffers to grow the nascent industry. And no wonder: Depending on whose estimates you track, wave energy could meet between 10 and 15 percent of the world’s electricity needs while emitting none of the greenhouse gases that are causing our planet to cook. In 2004, for example, the Portuguese government decided to pay wave companies by the kilowatt hour if they could deliver clean energy to the grid. In 2007, the United Kingdom allocated £28 million (roughly $55 million) to build the world’s first large-scale wave farm.
A wave energy machine must be resilient enough to survive monster waves and gale-force winds at sea.
The U.S. Department of Energy, on the other hand, has spent exactly zilch.
“We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars looking at nuclear fusion and space-based power, for god’s sake,” says Roger Bedard, ocean energy leader at the Electric Power Research Institute, a think tank based in Palo Alto, California. “But almost nothing on wave power.”
Except in Oregon. In 2007, after identifying wave energy as an industry with huge promise, the state earmarked $4.2 million to develop the field here. Managed by the nonprofit Oregon Wave Energy Trust, the money will help companies navigate the complex regulatory processes, identify the best spots for testing machines, and design environmental studies to deduce, say, how wave energy might affect migrating whales. The state also has offered tax credits to companies that build and deploy wave energy devices here. “I don’t understand why the rest of the nation’s states with good wave resources aren’t following Oregon’s lead,” Bedard says.
We’re not sure, either. What we do know is that the four machines in these pages may one day secure a permanent place along our shores—which also means they may deliver the energy of ocean waves directly to your door.