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Features

Stormy Seas

Ocean Power Promoters Struggle to Overcome a Stiff Current of Challenges

photo of a yellow buoy on the sea Courtesy Ocean Power TechnologiesProponents of ocean power say tidal and wave
generators like the one pictured here could provide
up to 10 percent of the US’s electricity needs.

At the eastern edge of the continent, on a blustery December afternoon, water slaps against the side of Energy Tide I, a small barge moored in the cold waters of Maine’s Passamaquoddy Bay. Churning swells dwarf the 20- by 48-foot barge, an unassuming structure that resembles a floating cabin with a Porta Potti lashed to its right side and a short platform at the stern. The vessel houses a turbine generator unit designed and built by Ocean Renewable Power Corporation (ORPC), a Florida-based firm, to harness energy from the tides. The company launched Energy Tide I in the autumn of 2007 as a testing facility for turbines that convert kinetic energy from offshore currents into electricity that can be used on land. The plan for the day is to bring in the barge to check on the turbine, but the winds and tide aren’t cooperating.

“We’re in that time of year where we have to be sensitive to the weather,” says Bob Lewis, who manages operations on the barge. The first big snowstorm of the season hit the region the night before, and patches of ice, gusty winds, and single-digit temperatures linger. Lewis had previously made plans to meet with the assistant harbormaster, Matt Lacasse, at 12:45 p.m. Already 10 minutes past the appointed time, Lacasse is nowhere in sight, and the barge remains moored 400 feet from shore.

ORPC hired Lewis – a native of the town of Eastport, one of the last US communities before the shoreline turns into Canada – two years ago to help coordinate its efforts to build the first commercial tidal facility in the US. It’s a job that gives Lewis a pioneer role in developing an industry that some people hope could one day provide a significant amount of the US’s energy needs.

“This is the beginning of a new industry,” Lewis exclaims. “ORPC has the benefit of helping lay the foundation for tidal energy development, and we hope that our philosophy will help make a better foundation for the industry.”

ORPC’s goal is to create emission-free electricity from ocean currents by developing its own original technology. Part of that mission involves talking up the environmental and economic potential of ocean power, which currently is overshadowed by the nation’s interest in developing wind and solar energy. “I also believe that our technology will open up opportunities more than just generating electricity,” Lewis says as part of his sales pitch. Among those opportunities he lists are new job growth, increased tourism to the remote area, and the creation of complementary industries such as the manufacturing of turbine blades.

Making progress hasn’t been easy, though. ORPC faces complex regulatory, ecological, and economic hurdles in developing its technology. Private funding has been difficult to secure. The electricity-generating systems are still being tweaked. And the industry has not yet fully addressed concerns about the possible impacts on ocean ecosystems.

Then there’s the uncontrollable force of the weather. When harbormaster Lacasse finally arrives, he gives word that the waters are too choppy to bring Energy Tide I ashore, which means Lewis may have to keep waiting before he can test ORPC’s latest design.

“Working in this environment is a challenge,” Lewis says with a grin as he puts the truck into gear and heads back to his office.

A Tsunami or a Swell?

ORPC is just one of dozens of companies around the world trying to tap the ocean’s power to generate renewable energy. Last November, Pelamis Wave Power became the first to commercially generate ocean power off the coast of Portugal by installing three steel “sea snakes” on the ocean floor. The snakes convert energy from the motion of the waves into electricity that is then transmitted to shore through underwater cables.

If developments in the research and construction of ocean power follow current trends, the industry could experience a huge boom in coming years, according to “Forecasting the Future of Ocean Power,” a report published by the Prometheus Institute last year. From 2001 through 2006, less than $50 million was invested in ocean power annually. But in 2007, investments jumped to $250 million. That growth is forecasted to continue, given plans for commercial power projects underway in South Korea, Spain, Ireland, and Australia. By 2015, the Prometheus Institute predicts global installed capacity will exceed 1 GW, and that more than $2 billion will be invested in the industry.

If the Prometheus Institute is right, ocean power will still remain a small industry when compared to wind power, which has at least a generation’s head start. In 2007, nearly $9 billion was invested in wind energy in the US alone. But ocean power, its proponents say, boasts certain unique advantages that promise to make it an important niche player within the broader renewable energy sector.

photo of wave machines laying half submerged parallel to the waterCourtesy Pelamis Wave PowerLast November, a company called Pelamis completed the first commercial wave-powered electricity generating station off the Portuguese coast. Each of these “snakes” creates up to 2.25 megawatts of power.

Among its advantages, ocean power is predictable. Waves, caused by the force of wind on the water, can be anticipated five days beforehand. Tidal currents, propelled by lunar cycles, are known more than 100 years in advance. This reliability makes ocean power a kind of renewable baseload generator, unlike solar and wind, which are notoriously erratic. The ocean also has a high “power density” – 832 times greater than air – which means that relatively large amounts of electricity can be generated from relatively small devices. For example, an underwater turbine can generate the same amount of energy as a wind turbine three times its size.

The total global capacity for ocean-power generation remains unknown. But some country-specific studies show real potential. Canada could generate 25 percent of its electricity from the oceans; the UK and Portugal each could meet 20 percent of their electricity demand.

In the US, capacity drops to 10 percent, according to a study conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in 2004. The report broke the number into the two primary types of ocean power: tidal (3.5 percent) and wave (6.5 percent). The numbers are theoretical, however, and the exact amount of energy that could be harnessed in the future depends largely on the location and quantity of tidal and wave-power generators. “Society is not going to allow energy companies to build a complete line so we have no beaches at all,” says Roger Bedard, who conducted the EPRI study. Assuming that projects are properly sited, Bedard believes that ocean power could be one of the more environmentally benign ways to generate electricity, even if it is not the most significant.

Riding the Waves

As the most abundant ocean-power resource, wave power has attracted the most interest and funding globally to date. “The bottom line on US ocean power,” says Bedard, “is that we have significant wave resources, particularly off the Northwest and Alaska and then in Hawai‘i as well.”

In the US, Oregon has taken the lead in developing ocean power. In 2007, Oregon established the Oregon Wave Energy Trust (OWET), the only publicly funded organization promoting ocean power. OWET refuses to advocate for specific technologies, focusing instead on developing the industry as a whole by conducting environmental studies and making policy recommendations that promote the rapid development of ocean power.

“Wave energy is a highly reliable natural resource,” says Stephanie Thornton, executive director of OWET. “It is a very clean energy and is available 24/7.” Thornton predicts wave technology will also have economic benefits for the state by providing job opportunities in coastal communities. OWET’s short-term goal is to generate two megawatts of power – enough to power a community of approximately 800 homes – by the spring of 2010. The long-term goal is to generate eight percent of the Oregon’s energy from the ocean by 2025.

Of the companies proposing projects off Oregon’s coast, Ocean Power Technologies (OPT) stands out. Based in Pennington, NJ, OPT signed a $1.7 million contract in 2007 with the US Navy for its PowerBuoy technology. The floating buoys, commonly called point absorbers, are one of the most popular types of wave-power technologies because of their relatively small size, simple design, and standard mooring system. The buoys rise and fall with the waves, and the motion turns a power take-off drive that’s connected to a generator, which then transmits electricity to land via underwater cables. The company says a 30-acre ocean generating field could create 10 MW of electricity. OPT has several test sites set up off the Jersey Shore, and is planning on developing commercial fields in France, Spain, and the UK that could generate up to 100 MW.

Going with the Flow

With companies pursuing wave power as one of the most significant sources of untapped renewable energy, tidal power has received less attention. Geography is a major problem. “Almost 100 percent of the potential tidal power that can be generated in the US is located in one state: Alaska,” Bedard says. “Unfortunately, they don’t have a way to use it or transmit it down to the lower 48.” However, there are exceptions where tidal is more feasible.

Among its advantages, ocean power is predictable. Waves can be anticipated five days beforehand. Tidal currents are known more than 100 years in advance.

Eastport, ME sits on a three-square-mile island near the border of New Brunswick, not far from where the Gulf of Maine meets the Bay of Fundy. To the west, water flushes in and out of Passamaquoddy Bay through Western Passage, a narrow channel between islands. Cobscook Bay lies to the east. Vast volumes of water squeeze in and out of these bays, creating fast currents and gigantic tides that rise and fall more than 18 feet twice a day.

Interest in harnessing the tides in Eastport dates back almost a century. In 1919, a hydroelectric engineer named Dexter Cooper first envisioned building a series of locks and dams in the Bay that would have generated electricity by trapping incoming tides and releasing them through a series of generators. The Great Depression crippled Cooper’s plans, but then the idea received support as part of the New Deal’s public works programs. The project, known as “Quoddy Dam,” consisted of seven miles of locks and dams that would have generated 260 megawatt-hours of electricity a year. But as the price tag rose to over $68 million, the project failed to win Congress’s continued support and was abandoned.

That left the tidal energy field wide open, and in 1967, France succeeded in building the world’s first tidal power plant. Located off the coast of Brittany, the La Rance Dam consists of 24 reversible turbines that generate, on average, 68 MW of electricity each year. Shortly after the La Rance opening, the US Congress made another attempt to harness Passamaquoddy’s tides during the oil crisis of the 1970s. But when oil prices dropped again, interest in the project dried up. Had the project succeeded, the design – based on altering the tides and damming the bay – would likely have carried its own environmental costs by harming local marine ecosystems.

Today, a second generation of tidal power technologies, such as the turbines being designed by ORPC, promises to be more environmentally benign. Rather than generating energy through dams, these technologies convert kinetic energy from currents into electricity using underwater turbines. While the most common devices being developed – horizontal axial turbines – adopt the principles of wind turbines, ORPC’s “cross-flow” design turbines are more similar to a lawnmower blade. Four blades attach to a single rotating shaft. The units are modular and, at commercial scale, will be stacked in groups of four. Each 78’ x 40’ unit could generate up to one megawatt of power in areas where currents are greater than six knots. In addition to the dozens of US companies competing to create the first commercial tidal power devices, Ireland, Spain, Norway, Sweden, and Italy have all begun developing their own technologies.

What Will the Fishes Think?

Despite technological advances in tidal technologies, environmental concerns persist. In Eastport, residents are anxious that ORPC’s turbines will negatively affect the marine environment and hurt the commercial fisheries for urchins, clams, scallops, and lobsters. “A lot of people make their living on the water here,” says Will Hopkins, director of the Cobscook Bay Resource Center (CBRC), a community group focused on sustainable resource management and economic development. “My concern is that there is just not going to be enough room to accommodate several industrial-scale projects as well as some of the traditional uses of fishing here.”

“All the angel investors and venture capitalists are on the sidelines. They’re like deer in a headlight. It’s possible the whole US ocean-power industry could die because of lack of funding.”

Fishermen are worried that the electricity transmission cables will tangle fishing lines. The sound of turning turbines might scare off schools of herring, alewives, and smelts that enter the bay and serve as forage species for larger fish. Turbines may also threaten mammals such as humpback and right whales, harbor porpoises, and seals. “The hope is that schools of fish and marine mammals will be able to detect the presence of these turbines turning and simply flow around them like any other obstacle in the ocean,” Hopkins says. “But the testing – acoustic, underwater video, and other monitoring – that will take place as ORPC goes to a commercial scale will be very critical.”

Environmental studies conducted by ORPC show that the turbines have little impact on marine life. But Dana Murch, supervisor of dam and hydropower projects for Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, says because the technology is new, the long-term effects on the ecosystem are unknown. “You have to start putting literally hundreds of units in to get a commercial-size project,” Murch says. “The dilemma is that I don’t know what the environmental impact is of one [turbine], let alone hundreds.”

Facing a Riptide

While the ocean-power industry works to hone its technology, wave and tidal entrepreneurs face an even tougher challenge – finding the financing to keep their research afloat. In Portugal, the leader in commercial projects, the government provides generous support to the industry. But in the US, the ocean-power industry – unlike wind and solar energy, which receive some federal funding and support – relies solely on private investments. Given the current economic downturn and drop in oil prices, securing funding has been harder than ever. “All the angel investors and venture capitalists are on the sidelines. They’re like deer in a headlight,” says Chris Souer, CEO of ORPC. “Government funding dramatically needs to increase because it doesn’t look like the private sector is going to in the near term. It’s possible that the whole [ocean-power] industry could die in the US because of lack of funding.”

Souer and others in the ocean-power industry are hoping at least for the kinds of tax credits and other public investment that have helped make wind economically competitive. When commercial wind power first started, it cost more than 20 cents per kilowatt-hour. Now it costs about five cents per kWh. According to the EPRI report, ocean power will range between four and 12 cents per kWh initially, but could eventually become less expensive than wind and solar because of its high density.

The capital costs of ocean power, which are expected to be higher than wind and solar, also play a factor in determining its financial viability. While the cost to install a wind-power project ranges from $1.20 to $1.60 per watt, EPRI projects tidal-power projects to cost from $1.70 to $4 per watt to install. Wave projects are likely to cost even more due to their larger scale and capacity.

photo of the spillgates of a dam, water flowing beneath wikimedia.org / Dani 7C3France’s La Rance Dam is the largest tidal-power
generating station in the world. But there are
concerns that the system is negatively affecting
the underwater ecosystem.

As companies develop the efficiency and durability of ocean-power technologies, the most likely projects to succeed, according to the Prometheus Institute, will be in remote locations like Eastport, where the cost of electricity is high and the density of ocean power is greatest.

Regardless of lingering concerns, most residents in Eastport are eager to see ORPC succeed. “When you live out in this area, you are a small blip on the radar,” says Bud Finch, city manager of Eastport. Located 22 miles off the main electrical grid, Eastport frequently loses power for more than a week at a time after a big storm. Without a reliable source of energy, the city has difficulty attracting businesses. “We understand that we choose to live out here, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pursue things that are better,” Finch says.

Despite the challenges that face the ocean-power industry today, ORPC continues to make progress in developing its technology. In January, Lewis happily reported that they were finally able to successfully test their latest turbine design. By the end of 2010, they plan to have a five-megawatt pilot facility in place and, if all goes well, will begin commercial production in 2011. “It’s an aggressive schedule,” Lewis says, “but based on our experience thus far, it’s not an unreasonable schedule.… We’re doing a lot. We have a lot left to do and we’re trying to get it done now. But we still have to be appreciative of the cold.”

Larissa Curlik graduated from Bowdoin College in 2007 with a degree in Environmental Design. She now lives in New Jersey.

   

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