Editor's note: This is the fourth in an occasional series of articles about what Lake Oswego resident Bob Sack calls "underappreciated, carbon-free sources of energy that are under development right here in Oregon." Sack's first "snapshot," about geothermal energy, appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Review; "Blowin in the (offshore) wind" was featured in the Jan. 3 issue; and "A future for hydropower" ran Jan. 31. Today's installment: "Catching a wave."
The waves off the Oregon coast are seething with energy. The challenge is to find a way to harvest all that thrashing and crashing without losing your equipment and investment in raging winter storms.
Creative engineers have conceived of all kinds of "wave energy converters" as they are called — bobbers, flappers, sea snakes, wheezers, oscillating water columns — but none of them are supplying energy to the grid, at least not yet. It may be that wave energy development is where wind and solar were 20 years ago.
In this article, I relate three stories of Oregon-based pioneers who are prospecting for electricity in our ocean waters, and follow-up with news of an Oregon facility that will be critical if these cutting-edge innovators (and others) are ever to succeed.
— OSU alumni Alex Hagmuller and Max Ginsburg began developing a wave-energy converter prototype in a bathtub. After refining their thinking and tinkering in their garage in their spare time, in 2015 they entered their concept into a Department of Energy-sponsored contest called the Wave Energy Prize, competing against 91 other teams.
Their device consists of a buoy that bobs up and down with the waves, pulling a cable that rotates the shaft of an electrical generator. The critical new ingredient in their device is a sophisticated control system that synchronizes the natural frequency of the device with the frequency of the incoming waves (hence the name of their company, Aquaharmonics).
After making it to the final round of the DOE contest, Alex and Max secured funding to design, build and test a 1/20-scale model of the device in the OSU large wave flume (an imitation ocean) that provided an opportunity to make further refinements to their invention. The final version was tested at the U.S. Navy's Carderock Basin in Bethesda, Maryland, (along with the work of eight other teams) and was determined to quintuple the amount of energy harvested, for the same capital cost, when compared to existing wave converters.
Hooray! They won the grand prize of $1.5 million! In 2017, they secured $5 million from DOE to build a 1/7-scale prototype that is currently, with the assistance of collaborators, being designed, fabricated and readied for testing in Hawaii.
— Corvallis was also the birthplace of another wave-energy device called the StingRAY, developed by faculty and graduate students at OSU's College of Engineering and then licensed by Columbia Power Technologies. This company has nurtured StingRAY through several iterations and is now preparing to build a larger version in Vancouver, Washington, that will be towed to Hawaii and tested in a Navy facility.
The project has been funded by grants from DOE, the Navy and private investors. The StingRAY will be fabricated from steel. It looks like a giant barrel with large outriggers fore and aft that rise and fall with the waves. The arms of these floating appendages pump energy to a generator located inside the barrel.
— Jonathan Bird is a Portland State University professor who was recently awarded $1 million from DOE for further development of a novel virtual gearbox system that is aimed at converting the slow movement of waves into the higher speeds required for an electric generator.
Current wave converters typically employ a steel mechanical gearbox for this task, but these are large, complex, costly contraptions and are difficult to service. Bird's magnetic device transfers force without any physical contact and therefore no friction. It is intended to overcome one of the many practical obstacles to wave power harvesting.
So there are a plethora of wave-power concepts under development. Online, I counted 83 start-up companies in the U.S. with ambitions to harvest wave energy. But these entrepreneurs have lacked one thing: a real
ocean playground (so to speak) to test their devices, and that is where Oregon comes in.
Our state has been selected as the site for a $50 million open-water, grid-connected national wave-energy testing facility called PacWave. If the final financing can be secured, it will be built in 2020, about seven miles offshore from Newport, away from commercial and recreational fishing sites and outside of shipping lanes. It will be open to wave-energy companies from around the world that want a pre-permitted site to try out their machines, a critical step on the pathway to commercialization.
My conclusion is that wave energy is abundant, close by and available around the clock. The DOE should be funding even more R&D in order to someday bring this clean energy to our homes, cars and factories.
For more information, see pacwaveenergy.org.
Up next: Home-grown nuclear energy — like it, or not?
Bob Sack is a member of the Lake Oswego Sustainability Advisory Board (appointed by the City Council) and is on the board of the Lake Oswego Sustainability Network, a citizens' group. The views expressed in these articles are his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the organizations with whom he is associated.