Harnessing the Power of Ocean Energy

“It is estimated that harnessing just 2 one-thousandths of the oceans’ untapped energy could provide power equal to current worldwide demand.”Annette von Jouanne founder of the Wave Energy program at Oregon State University (OSU)

With 70 percent of the world’s surface covered by ocean a remarkable opportunity exists to produce clean energy. The sea remains the greatest pool of untapped renewable power on the planet. The wave energy off American coasts alone can provide as much electricity as the nation’s hydroelectric plants.

“Full scale of the wave resource is about the same as the hydro resource, which is approximately six percent,” Dr. Ted Brekken told me by phone. He is the co-director of the Wallace Energy Systems and Renewables Facility at Oregon State University, “the highest-power university energy systems lab in the U.S.”

“The resource will be fully developed when there are five to seven wave parks with each of those generating over 100 megawatts,” he said. The amount of electricity from one park could power several hundred thousand homes.

In September 2008 OSU and Columbia Power Technologies (CPT) tested a type of wave energy conversion machine called a point absorber buoy, which CPT describes as “the first ocean energy device to produce kilowatt scale electrical energy off the Oregon coast.”

Dr. Brekken explained the prototype in simple terms. “A point absorber design basically means it’s just a buoy that bobs up and down,” he said.

Inside the buoy contains a vertical metal spar coiled in copper. Surrounding this spar a float with magnets rises and falls with each passing swell.

“It works pretty much exactly the same way as those shake flashlights; it’s identically the same principal,” he said. “You have a magnet moving past a copper coil generating electricity.” The electricity would then be carried to shore through transmission lines along the seafloor.

In March OSU and CPT passed another milestone in the quest for clean energy when it concluded lab tests of their latest design of point absorber buoy. Researchers took the data gathered from the 2008 test launch and developed an improved, more productive device. The new generation of buoy generates electricity from not only the rise and fall heave of passing swells, but also the side to side surge. Production of a full scale size prototype for ocean testing can now begin.

In related news, New Jersey based Ocean Power Technologies recently won a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Energy and announced it will move forward with early commercial development of its own version of point absorber buoy. The company plans to install a wave park off the Oregon coast.

The wave energy industry remains in an emergent state, but renewed worldwide interest is advancing the technology with vigor. It’s possible to make electricity from waves. It now remains to create devices capable of supplying large population centers and weave through the obstacle course of competing interests to get them installed. Environmental concerns exist and currently are under study. It will take broad based cooperation, but within sight is an opportunity to help wean ourselves from other pollution ridden sources of electricity.

Published online at Hippie Magazine.

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