‘Oregon is the mecca of statewide land use planning, and it came as a shock that there was nothing in place for the ocean’. —Onno Husing, Director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association
But the irony of this new, supposedly sustainable energy source facing such high scrutiny isn’t lost on some in the field. “Exxon doesn’t come in and have touchy-feely conversations with the community before they poke holes. They just do it,” says Jason Busch, executive director of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust. Pointing out that there will be many tough choices ahead as climate change likely worsens, he adds, “Wave energy has found a way to extract energy in such a way as to not overuse, yet we’re subject to the highest levels of scrutiny, while existing oil and gas activities cause climate change that threatens entire species.”
For all the various constituencies’ deep anxieties about wave energy—and the years of meetings to assuage them—the fact remains that nobody knows for sure how or if this new technology will even work. In 2007, headlines (“Oregon hopes to catch energy wave”) excitedly announced the launch of the first test wave energy buoy, developed by Finavera Renewables, off the Oregon coast. Two months after its deployment, and one day before its scheduled removal, more headlines revealed the ocean’s last laugh: “Test buoy for wave energy sinks off Oregon coast.” The Vancouver, BC–based Finavera has since abandoned its efforts in Oregon. Several other failures have occurred around the world.
Potentially dozens of entirely different designs by other companies in this new industry will soon follow here and in other ocean environments, from sea snakes tethered offshore to jetty-anchored stacks of slanted steel reservoirs designed to catch incoming waves. Currently, US Patent records show 713 patents for wave energy devices. However great the theories and simulations of each kind of buoy might be, they will still have to meet the force of the sea.
Wave energy advocates argue that the industry is where wind was 20 years ago. “Wave energy is not an ‘if,’ but a ‘when,’” says Justin Klure of the Portland-based consulting firm Pacific Energy Ventures. “There’s too much potential energy out there that we need to learn how to harness.”
And a growing number of companies are willing to brave these uncharted waters in the hopes of cashing in on those waves. “The wave energy industry is still so nascent, there is no way to tell winners or losers at this point,” according to Chandra Brown, vice president of Oregon Iron Works, the Clackamas-based company building the first Ocean Power Technologies buoy. She contends that Oregon Iron Works is technology-neutral; it’s eagerly watching to see how the field unfolds. “Right now there are probably 20 viable companies and designs out there, but the industry is still ramping up,” she adds.