First buoys due soon in wave power project test

By Byline
The Seattle Times
The Associated Press

CORVALLIS, Ore. — The first test buoys designed to convert ocean waves to electricity will be deployed a few miles off the Oregon Coast within a few weeks.

They won’t supply power yet but they are generating concern among fishermen, conservationists and government officials who want to weigh in.

Wave-generated energy is joining power possibilities from solar, wind and geothermal sources as a way to increase renewable energy and cut down on fossil fuel use, but it is by far the least-developed.

“This is no longer an abstract issue,” said Onno Husing, executive director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association, a nonprofit group in Newport that advocates for local governments along the coast.

“There are buoys in the water, permits in the making.”

Crabbers worry that their fishing grounds will succumb to energy wave parks likely to include dozens of buoys and undersea cables.

Conservationists worry that migrating gray whales could get tangled in the lines and about the possible impact in the nearshore environment.

And wave energy developers worry about recovering stiff upfront investment costs from a little-tested technology.

Questions abound.

That much emerged from the Ocean Renewable Energy Conference at Oregon State University on Friday, where more than 100 representatives from the burgeoning industry, local government officials and scientists gathered.

They say a fully functioning commercial wave energy system could meet 10 percent of Oregon’s energy demand, the amount hydropower dams produce today.

Wave energy could be used locally, which saves expensive transmission, said Kevin Banister, vice president of business development for Finavera Renewables Ocean Energy.

Finavera, which is working on a test project using buoys as tall as 75 feet to be deployed soon off of Newport also is planning a project in Makah Bay, Wash., and another near Bandon.

Banister said the company plans to use profits from wind energy in Eastern Oregon to fund startup costs.

He said a wave energy advantage is that the surf is at its most powerful when the energy demand on the coast is highest.

Another company, Ocean Power Technologies, was the first to apply for a permit to install a buoy, and wave park, near Gardiner’s now-defunct International Paper mill site.

Steve Kopf, the company’s president, and others appealed at the conference for the state to develop a uniform wave energy plan that could describe where Oregon wants projects to sit, how they should be maintained and how they should be decommissioned if no longer used.

Congress recently stripped the state of siting authority for energy facilities in the Pacific Ocean, bringing to question how much input the state could have.

The state does own the sea to three miles out and there are myriad state regulations that could apply.

Groups have formed representing fishermen and local government interests, but their effect is uncertain because wave energy is such an untested resource.

“We don’t want a conflict between renewable power and renewable food,” said Lincoln County Commissioner Terry Thompson.

Researchers estimate that wave energy could prove more profitable than wind power once a certain economy of scale is reached.

But with limitless unknowns, the investment is iffy for some developers now eyeing Oregon. At this point, the cost of permitting alone outweighs the potential profit, Kopf said.

The last Legislature helped by passing a bill increasing the value of the business energy tax credit from 35 to 50 percent and upping the available amount of eligible project cost to $20 million meaning a wave energy developer could save as much as $10 million for building in Oregon.

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