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Oregon Power Project Needs The Motion Of The Ocean


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I am Ira Flatow. I know you've heard about the various proposals for offshore wind energy. Stick a windmill farm off the coast where it's almost always windy. Send the electricity back to the shore. But off the coast of Oregon, a different sort of offshore power is getting set to go. A massive generator, the first of several, that makes electricity from the motion of waves and feeds that power back to the grid. It'll be the first grid-connected wave power project in the country. Jason Busch is executive director of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust. That's an advocacy group that works, in its words, to promote the responsible development of ocean energy in Oregon. Welcome to the program.

JASON BUSCH: Great to be here, Ira. It's one of my favorite shows.

FLATOW: Well, thank you. Tell us about this new project. Describe it for us.

BUSCH: Sure. So the Ocean Power Technologies' project happening in Reedsport, Oregon, is starting with a large buoy that will create electricity from the motion of the ocean as you say. It's about a 200-ton device made of steel. It's about 150 feet long, and it sits out in the ocean about 2 1/2 miles from shore. And this first device going in the water is not actually connected to the grid yet. But when its partners show up in the coming months or years, it will be connected to the ocean - to the grid onshore and send electricity to whatever nearest toaster or hairdryer needs electrons.

FLATOW: And how many homes do you think potentially can be powered this way?

BUSCH: Well, I believe the Ocean Power Technologies is stating that with the 1.5 megawatt project that will build out 10 of these buoys that it'll power about 1,000 homes.

FLATOW: Wow. Describe in a little more detail, if you can, how the electricity is generated.

BUSCH: Sure. So the Ocean Power Technologies' buoy has really three components. The main piece is a spar that sits vertically in the water. And that spar is long and relatively skinny, and it contains all of the real guts of the equipment, the power takeoff unit. At the bottom is a ballast, a large, circular wheel that's attached to that spar, and it sits down at about 130 feet down in the water. And because the motion of the ocean is lesser the further down you go, it holds the whole spar relatively stable. And that's important because the third piece is a floating, donut-shaped structure that sits on top of that spar and moves relative to the spar. And it's that relative motion that creates electricity.

In this case, with the OPT buoy, there's a shaft that moves up and down into the spar, and it mechanically spins a generator. Other devices could do so with hydraulics. It could actually be a direct linear generator where a magnet is moving in and out of coils. But the OPT buoy works without hydraulics. It's a pure rack-and-pinion type mechanical structure.

FLATOW: That's - it's simple. The fewest, you know, moving parts. How much maintenance, do you think, you have to - you'll have to do on it?

BUSCH: Well, I know that the goal is to have, of course, as minimal maintenance as possible. But given that you're operating in a marine environment, you can be certain that there's going to be some regular preventative maintenance. So I've heard anywhere from a year to two to three years per device. They want to bring it to shore potentially and sort of pull it out, look at it, probably make upgrades, and then put it back out there.

So the first buoy is more or less a proof of concept device, a test device?

I'd say it's beyond that and simply because Ocean Power Technologies has been building buoys for several years. They've had other devices in the water. In fact, they currently have a device that's very similar to this one in size and shape. It's been deployed in Scotland for several months and has, I believe, survived a 100-year storm and is performing quite well. Now the difference is that in the Scottish version, they are still using hydraulic fluid. And if we're really indicative of the renewable energy industry in general, we're trying to find one ways to minimize any potential environmental impact. And so removing things such as hydraulic fluids from the equipment limits that potential problem. So here, it's purely mechanical.

FLATOW: Is this the only project of its kind that's going on now?

BUSCH: In the United States, yes. So this will really be the first commercial scale device that has gone into the water in the United States. The OPT had a 40-kilowatt device in the water in Hawaii for quite some time. It's been testing with the Navy. But this is really a utility-scale device, first of its kind.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And what it makes it possible is that the grid, right, the electric grid comes right out there close by.

BUSCH: That's right. That's one of the reasons in addition to Oregon's amazing ocean energy resource that we have, it's the grid infrastructure that we have out here in Oregon. It runs the entire coast from Washington to California. We have coast communities up and down Oregon Coast, and we have

...to Oregon's amazing ocean energy resource that we have. It's the grid infrastructure that we have out here in Oregon. It runs the entire coast, from Washington to California. We have coastal communities up and down the Oregon Coast. And we have a grid infrastructure that extends along the entire shore. And it has a number of substations that are up and down the Oregon Coast that are - where you take on large amounts or put off large amounts of electricity.

And, unfortunately, due to the decline of the timber industry, we now have a number of substations that used to power these large lumber mills sitting there with extra capacity that - to be able to take power on. And so that's a huge resource for the renewable energy industry here. They don't have to permit these things or build them or pay for them. And that makes a big difference for Oregon.

FLATOW: Let's go to Rita in Newbury, Ohio. Hi, Rita.

RITA: Hi, Ira. I have a question about the wave project that was off the coast of Ireland and also in the Bay of Fundy. What ever happened to those? Does anyone know?


BUSCH: Well, I'll take a shot at that. So, there are a number of projects going on in the U.K., in general. In fact, really, the U.K. is the home of ocean energy. They have a number of devices in the - I'm not sure what specific device you're talking about, but there are a number of devices. None of them are actually commercial-scale utility generating projects. They're still all in the sort of proving-up-of-the-technology stage. But they're all very close to reaching that commercial stage.

The Bay of Fundy is a really tidal project, not entirely my bailiwick, but I'm certainly familiar with the great effort that's going on there. And I know that a U.S.-based title company out of Maine is in the process of deploying a tidal device in Maine this summer. And I'm not sure if they're online yet, but I know that they're moving toward that quickly.

FLATOW: Thank you, Rita.

RITA: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're...

RITA: Bye.

FLATOW: You're welcome. You know, the offshore wind turbines have had a heck of a time getting the public to accept them, not, you know, not in my backyard. They, you know, some people think they're going to be ugly. They're going to - whatever, even though they're tiny, little visions off the coast. Did you have that kind of problem with your wave power project in Oregon?

BUSCH: Well, we have a different version of NIMBY-ism. We call it NIMPO-ism: not in my Pacific Ocean. There certainly are...


BUSCH: ...folks who really don't think there should be anything in the ocean to create electricity, and they certainly may not want to look at them. But we have taken a lot of steps here in Oregon through the planning process to minimize the impacts of these devices. And they're not necessarily prominent on the landscape, depending on what - how big they are.

A wind turbine, of course, is a much larger device, standing up several hundred feet above the water. And - but the ocean energy devices run from maybe 30 feet above water, down to those that you can't see it all. And I think it's important to point out that the Ocean Power Technologies' buoy is just one of many different types of technologies that are tracking towards commercialization. Some of those mount to the bottom of the ocean. You can't see them at all. You could boat over the top of them. You could commercially fish, potentially, or surf over the top of them, and you wouldn't even know they were there.

FLATOW: So, in your project, the current project, what are the outstanding questions that need to be answered as of yet?

BUSCH: Well, because this is a brand-new technology, we don't have perfect information yet. And so when it comes to the permitting process, there are certainly questions that remain to be answered, and a lot of those are environmental. We know a lot already about these devices, and we know expect to see - but you really don't know until you get the devices in the water. And more importantly, when you get several devices in the water, we - nobody thinks that a single buoy is really going to have much of an effect on anything. But if you put 20 of them or 50 of them, the cumulative effects of devices could create problems that we did not foresee. But there are a lot of smart folks that are paying attention to that.

And, in fact, my organization, the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, has funded a number of studies to make sure that we do understand what's the environmental impacts of ocean energy will be, because, as you mentioned, our goal is to promote a responsible development energy. We like it. We want to see it move forward, but we want to see it move forward in a way that is considerate of the existing ocean users and, certainly, of the ocean itself.

FLATOW: What about the fishing industry? I know they've been giving you a tough time, right?

BUSCH: Well, the fishing industry are certainly are engaged. They're cautious about this whole process. I can give them credit for being engaged and paying attention and working with us, really, to find sites that will minimize the impact on their industry. Certainly, ocean renewable energy is an opportunity. It's new. It's - the fishing industry, I think, leadership in particular recognizes how important this could be for the state of Oregon and for people in general. And that's why they've worked with us to try to make this move forward in a way that is slow and cautious, and in a way that works for everybody.

FLATOW: All right. We'll be watching and seeing and getting back to you and see how this has been working out. Good luck to you.

BUSCH: Thank you very much, Ira.

FLATOW: Jason Busch is executive director of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, waiting to see what happens with those wave energy generators off the coast of Oregon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.