Can Wave Power Really Make Waves Against Fossil Fuels?

Innovative ocean renewable energy technology makes U.S. debut off the coast of Oregon.
Could wave power be part of our renewable energy future? (Kaz Mori/Getty)
Sep 4, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

About 15 years ago, the state of Oregon “began pushing the idea of making renewable energy from the ocean waves that bob and swell on the Pacific horizon,” reports The New York Times. “But then one of the first test-buoy generators, launched with great fanfare, promptly sank. It was not a good start.”

“But time and technology turned the page, and now the first commercially licensed grid-connected wave-energy device in the nation, designed by a New Jersey company, Ocean Power Technologies, is in its final weeks of testing before a planned launch in October. The federal permit for up to 10 generators came last month, enough, the company says, to power about 1,000 homes. When engineers are satisfied that everything is ready, a barge will carry the 260-ton pioneer to its anchoring spot about two and a half miles offshore near the city of Reedsport, on the central coast.”

The Outer Continental Shelf website explains the general concept of wave energy saying, “Waves are caused by the wind blowing over the surface of the ocean. In many areas of the world, the wind blows with enough consistency and force to provide continuous waves. There is tremendous energy in the ocean waves. Wave power devices extract energy directly from the surface motion of ocean waves or from pressure fluctuations below the surface . . . Wave-power rich areas of the world include the western coasts of Scotland, northern Canada, southern Africa, Australia, and the northwestern coasts of the United States.”

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The Ocean Energy Council adds, “Unlike dams, wave power structures that are equally long-lived promise comparatively benign environmental effects. Wave power is renewable, green, pollution-free, and environmentally invisible, if not beneficial, particularly offshore. Its net potential (resource minus ‘costs’) is equal to or better than wind, solar, small hydro or biomass power.”

Addressing some of the uncertainties surrounding the technology, Oregon State University says, “The conversion of ocean waves into electricity has the potential to provide clean, reliable and low-cost electricity to the economy while posing minimal impacts on the environment. However, in order for wave energy to develop and fulfill these assumptions, we must reduce the uncertainties about the technology's effects on the marine environment.”

The Times article addressed this issue, noting, “In a nod to environmental concerns, the buoy was redesigned to remove all hydraulic fluids, which some critics feared could contaminate the water in the event of an accident; rack-and-pinion gears now drive the mechanics. The three anchoring tethers . . . were also built to withstand a 100-year storm, but also with enough redundancies that even if two anchors failed the third would be enough to keep the buoy in place.”

So, if all goes according to plan it could be that, to paraphrase The Beach Boys, Oregonians may catch some waves and find themselves sitting on top of the world.

What sort of future do you think wave power has in the United States? Tell us in the comments.

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