By Joel Millman
March 9, 2014
Pacific Boasts Wind and Favorable Wave Action, but Projects Have Faced Resistance Elsewhere
Oregon’s deep blue sea is poised to be a new testing ground for green energy, as advanced technology has entrepreneurs lining up to try to harness the Pacific’s wind and waves.
Last month, the Interior Department greenlighted the Pacific Coast’s first offshore wind-power project, 18 miles off Coos Bay, Ore. Just to the north, another project would use energy-producing buoys to generate electricity from the up-and-down motion of sea swells.
“We like what Coos Bay has to offer,” said Kevin Banister, vice president of business development and government affairs for Principle Power Inc., the Seattle company that received a permit from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for the wind project. “It’s in the middle of a really rich band of offshore wind.”
Principle said it could have five massive turbines spinning by the summer of 2017.
Renewable-energy backers have long trumpeted offshore sources, but projects on the East Coast that are closer to the shore have faced opposition from environmentalists and tourism interests. The location off Oregon is said to boast a number of advantages, including a deep continental drop that generates bigger waves and allows the use of floating turbines, rather than ones in the Atlantic that are anchored to the seafloor.
“There’s more ocean, for one thing,” said Kevin Watkins, a Portland, Ore., energy consultant.
Principle Power envisions a cluster of floating wind turbines, each capable of generating six megawatts of electricity—enough to power about 10,000 homes. The group developed a similar project that has been operating off Portugal’s coast since 2011.
Wind turbines already thrive in inland Oregon, especially near the Columbia River, whose massive gorge already functions as a natural wind tunnel. But going offshore means there is virtually no size limit to the blades that could be used because each could be assembled close to shore, then towed out to sea—without having to pass through tunnels or under bridges on land.
Principle Power still needs to raise capital—as much as $200 million, those familiar with the project estimate—and submit a business plan for locals to scrutinize.
“Has it been exceedingly controversial? I wouldn’t say so,” says Elise Hamner, community-affairs manager for Coos Bay’s port. “One day, there could be significant jobs assembling turbines here, or at least jobs tied to putting them out to sea.”
Still, any ocean energy developer faces an arduous permitting process. Among the issues are offshore birds, acoustics—in the interest of whale migration—and fishing, which in Oregon often means trawling or “dragging” gear along the seabed. That could lead to entanglements with cables carrying power to shore.
Mr. Watkins, the energy consultant, said the “bathymetry” of Oregon’s deep coastal shelf fuels conditions for wave-generated energy, possibly a more promising technology. “Waves are more predictable than wind,” he explains.
Mr. Watkins has been working with New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technologies Inc. on plans to drop energy-producing buoys off Oregon’s coast near Reedsport, north of Coos Bay. The company has spent $6 million developing a prototype that generates electricity from the up-and-down motion of sea swells. The group plans to launch its initial buoy in 2015, then nine more by 2017 in a “wave park” bobbing 2 1/2 miles from shore.
Opposition to such projects could come from Oregon’s fishing industry, whose catch produces $350 million in economic activity along the coast, according to the state’s Dungeness Crab Commission. Crabbers have been shadowing Principle Power at public hearings mainly to ensure fishermen’s concerns are heard.
“Nobody wants to say, ‘Hell, no!’ to all these proposals,” said Hugh Link, executive director of the crab commission, “but the fishing industry is our bird in the hand. The waves and wind proposals are like two birds in the bush. It looks good, but it hasn’t been tried yet.”
At least two more wave-energy projects are being prepared for Oregon’s coast. M3 Wave LLC plans to put a pressure-driven device on the ocean floor near the Oregon National Guard’s Camp Rilea as soon as August. “It’s basically a giant bladder inside a box,” explains Mike Morrow, one of the company’s founders. “Pressure goes through a pipe and spins a turbine.”
M3 Wave’s project would cost about $200,000 to deploy, Mr. Morrow said. Camp Rilea is lending a stretch of beachfront to test the apparatus to develop alternative sources of power as a backup system.
Camp Rilea is the site of another project due to test the waters next year. Resolute Marine Energy Inc., of Boston, last year got Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval for a commercial project serving the remote Alaskan village of Yakutat.
Resolute’s Camp Rilea project envisions rows of panels attached to hinges that would rock with the ocean’s movement while collecting energy that a cable would carry to shore.
William Staby, Resolute founder, said the Oregon project would allow prospective customers to view the technology in action, as a “sales tool.”