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Apr 07, 2009

New technologies are tapping the vast power of the oceans to help satisfy the world’s growing appetite for energy.

By Amy Van Vechten & Sean Piazza

In our greening world, wind may be the renewable of the moment. But buzz is growing around a new slew of technologies intent on tapping the virtually unlimited power of the oceans.
Scientists and engineers in Scotland, England, Australia and on both coasts of the United States are developing a variety of methods that they say could lessen, if not eventually eradicate, the need for new pollution-producing power plants.
Over 50 prototypes—with more than 1,000 patents—are in the works, ranging from turbine-like columns that sit under the water’s surface to snaky trains that bob on top of the waves.
This year, Siadar Wave Energy Project (SWEP) in Scotland and The Wave Hub in England will seriously test these technologies’ efficiency and potential for quick implementation. SWEP claims their initial site off the coast of Scotland could eventually provide electricity for over 1,500 homes.
American companies are developing similar technologies, often with support from lawmakers. “Wave energy possesses incredible potential to provide America with clean renewable energy,” says Senator Gordon Smith.
This fall, Reedsport, Ore. will host America’s first commercial project. Ocean Power Technologies and Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative (PNGC) have teamed up to manufacture 20 buoys, which will rise 30 feet above the water two miles off the Oregon coast. They hope the buoys will generate enough electricity for 200 nearby homes.
While most of the energy demand in the Pacific Northwest comes from big coastal cities like Portland and Seattle, resources generally lie in the easternmost parts of the region. A local power source on the coast would solve a lot of problems, says Kevin Watkins, head of communications
for PNGC.
Along with the work being done in the Pacific Northwest, wave power projects are popping up all over the West Coast.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom recently submitted a permit application to the federal government to develop a wave power project for the Bay Area.
“In the U.S., there are a number of studies, but no commercial operations. San Francisco is hoping to change that,” he wrote in a post on the site CleanTechnica. Along with power, Newsom hopes the project will also generate 100 jobs for the city.
Ocean-power technology is divided into two main categories: tidal and wave power. Wave power, which is being tested by prototypes like Pelamis and Ocean Power Technologies, involves using the dynamic waves on the surface of the ocean to generate power. Tidal technologies, on the other hand, involve catching the power of currents with fan-like turbines.
One such tidal power venture, Verdant Power, is spearheading tests on the East Coast.
They plan to install 30 turbines by 2010 in the turbulent East River that runs between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Many of these project would not be possible if not for a heavy influx in venture capital funding for wave power technologies. According to the Cleantech Group, venture capital going into ocean venture companies rose from $8 million in 2005 to $82 million in 2007.
“The development of these technologies is definitely improving,” says Dr. Annette von Jouanne, a professor and lead researcher for the Department of Energy-funded Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center in Oregon. “We’re very optimistic that we’ll overcome challenges and have success.”
Von Jouanne also notes that if just 0.2 percent of the ocean’s power were harnessed, it would provide enough electricity to satiate the energy demands of the entire world. However, there are some concerns.
Environmentalists worry that acoustic impacts and electromagnetic fields, which attract marine life, might alter migration patterns. However, von Jouanne insists that her research addresses these issues. Working with fishermen to determine low impact areas and using proper shielding are crucial elements of the research, she says.
Although the cost of wave power will start in the range of 20 to 30 cents per kilowatt hour, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) indicates that it would likely fall in price like that of wind technology, which has dropped from 30 to 7 cents per kilowatt hour as more units have become available to produce more volume and as prices have become competitive.
“Nothing is ever easy when you’re dealing with a high voltage energy transmission system,” says Watkins. “But this would be one of the easiest solutions.”


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