27 Feb 2012 - Ocean Power Almost Wiped Out - Now it’s Making a Comeback.
Motoring across the Puget Sound, Reenst Lesemann spots a yellow, barnacle-encrusted contraption bobbing on the wind-whipped waters off Seattle. Called the SeaRay, it’s the prototype of a device that Lesemann’s startup, Columbia Power Technologies, is betting can help transform wave energy from a long-running science experiment into the next renewable energy bonanza. “I have never seen a multibillion-dollar market where the customers are literally waiting on the technology,” says Lesemann, a former venture capitalist.
Indeed. A new government-sponsored study has found that the oceans surrounding the U.S. contain enough energy to potentially supply more than half the nation’s electricity demand. Even with the limits of today’s technology, scientists concluded, there’s sufficient recoverable energy offshore—some 1,170 terawatt-hours a year in all—to keep a third of the country humming. More energy crashes annually onto the West Coast, for instance, than California uses in a year.
And now the reality check: 5 megawatts. That’s how much electricity—enough to light about 4,000 American homes—is being currently generated by wave energy worldwide despite years of work by a plethora of startups and many millions of dollars in government support, according to research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
What happened? Before the financial crash, the great green tech boom unleashed a rush of startups and speculators staking claims on federal waters to build massive wave farms, while in Europe governments, including Portugal and Scotland, placed big bets on wave energy. But making green off blue power soon proved to be so much California dreaming as plans for West Coast wave energy arrays sank under opposition from surfers, fishermen and local residents.
Even California regulators, who had green-lighted Pacific Gas & Electric's contract to buy electricity from a solar power station that would orbit the Earth, balked at the utility’s deal with a wave energy startup, concluding the technology was too risky. And when companies finally began deploying their first wave energy generators in Europe, punishing ocean conditions took their toll as some devices broke down or failed to perform as expected. “They may work well in prototype in a very small size, but when you scale them they don’t necessarily work as well in a harsh seawater environment,” says Angus McCrone, who follows the wave industry for Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
But now the endless wait for that perfect wave generator may be drawing to a close. Thanks to advances in software, a new generation of startups like Columbia Power are cheaply and quickly testing hundreds of new designs in virtual oceans while veterans of the industry are perfecting their technology to wring more energy from waves and lower the cost of electricity. Multinational corporations like Lockheed Martin and Alstom, the French energy giant, have struck partnerships with startups to commercialize their technology. “We see wave energy as a very serious market for renewable energy in the future,” says Tim Fuhr, director of ocean energy for Lockheed Martin. “Basically, we see the ocean as the largest untouched source of power on the planet.”
Last September Lockheed Martin paired with Ocean Power Technologies, a New Jersey company that has spent the better part of two decades developing a device to transform the motion of waves into electricity, accumulating a $120 million deficit along the way. The aerospace conglomerate will help OPT develop a supply chain to industrialize its PowerBuoy wave generator, which is undergoing sea trials in Scotland, for deployment off the Oregon coast this year as part of a
1.5-megawatt wave farm. (Lockheed has a similar partnership with Wavebob, an Irish wave energy company.) “We have established the survivability of our technology out in the ocean, and we now have a product we can sell commercially,” says Charles Dunleavy, OPT’s chief executive.
The PowerBuoy generates 150 kilowatts of electricity and resembles a giant vertical dumbbell anchored to the sea floor. The top portion of the 115-foot-long device floats on the ocean’s surface, and as it bobs among the waves the motion pushes pistons to create mechanical energy to drive an electrical generator. The electricity is routed through cables to the power grid onshore.
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