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Wave Energy's Big Splash

THE UNITED STATES has a golden opportunity to become a recognized leader in wave energy technology. No one need look beyond national media for proof of progress, with stories like the first Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license issuance for a wave energy project, and the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center (NNMREC) opening its open-ocean test facility in Newport, Ore.

As someone who is closely connected to this effort, I hope we take advantage of this opportunity for what it could mean for our energy future and economic development prospects.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy funded NNMREC as one of three university centers in Marine Renewable Energy. NNMREC, a partnership between Oregon State University and the University of Washington, has as its mission to advance wave and tidal energy technology. Faculty and students are at the forefront of research, education and testing that enable marine energy technology to grow. Their research closes gaps in understanding the technology, environmental and human dimension challenges, in addition to informing regulators of the impact of these devices when deployed in our oceans.

As the director of NNMREC, I see firsthand the impact of this team on the industry. For example, OSU has two premier wave tanks in which developers test their pilot-scale devices, at times cycling from one tank to another as they advance through development spirals. As device developers gain understanding of the technical performance of the devices, they transition to ocean testing.

Recently, NNMREC opened our open-ocean test facility in Newport, and the first wave energy device to be tested (WET-NZ) was installed. The WET-NZ is connected through an electrical umbilical cable to NNMREC's Ocean Sentinel, a mobile ocean test buoy. Although the new test facility represents a big step forward for developers, devices are limited to 100 kilowatts average power produced, and this limit is problematic for more mature devices. So what do developers do?

Today, testing a utility-scale device, perhaps at 1 megawatt average power, in the most energetic wave resources available can best be completed at the European Marine Energy Center (EMEC) in Orkney, UK. At EMEC, devices connect to the electrical grid and developers learn about the power being produced in various wave climates, as well as reliability and sustainability of their systems in Orkney's highly energetic waves. This isn't a simple option for U.S. developers, who must endure high transportation costs. And unfortunately for those who are willing to ship their devices, EMEC's wave sites are contracted through the next five years.

To address these challenges, NNMREC is starting a U.S.-based EMEC companion: the Pacific Marine Energy Center (PMEC). We are working with Oregon coastal communities on site selection and are seeking funding for facility development. Upon completion, PMEC will provide another important resource for developers to move their technology toward maturity, understanding not only the device operation but also the environmental impacts and social acceptance.

So, from my vantage point, the industry's future is bright. But threats exist.

In the 1970s, the United States was a recognized leader in wind energy. Altamont Pass Wind Farm in northern California was a showcase of these experimental designs. The United States established the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo., as a wind energy test center. When tax incentives and research funding decreased dramatically in the United States in the 1980s, so did the U.S. wind energy industry. Denmark, which had also been active in this industry, took the lead. Today, our wind farms consist of devices that were developed under European investment, with turbines manufactured by companies such as Iberdrola, Vestas and Siemens.

Wave energy technology is much where wind was 30 to 40 years ago. There is no one device recognized as "the winner." The best design will ultimately be decided based on cost of energy, a quantity defined by a complicated equation dependent upon materials and manufacturing costs, mooring and deployment costs, operation and maintenance costs, and energy produced. But these are just costs' technical aspects. There are also environmental impacts and opportunity costs incurred.

Still, that does not capture the net cost, as arrays of these devices might have a positive benefit by acting as spawning areas for fish or crab. Moreover, there will be some devices best suited to onshore locations where waves break, some in shallow and others in deep water, some that require rocky ocean floors, and others deployed in sand.

If we fail to pursue wave energy development opportunities, we miss the new-industry economic benefits. The testing infrastructure and developer financing are necessary for industry growth, but jobs pair with investment as well. In Orkney, EMEC has produced an additional 221 jobs in 10 years. This is before any utility-scale manufacturing or development has taken place.

I've been asked if private investment is enough to move this industry forward. We know from our history with the wind industry that it is not.

We need federal investment in research to help developers push their devices through critical technology maturation development processes. Feed-in tariffs and power purchase agreements can help the wave energy industry like they have helped wind and solar.

It might seem easy to succumb to a growing opinion: Renewables are not that important while we have cheap and available natural gas. However, in order to have a seamless transition to the renewable energy portfolio that will replace fossil fuels, we need to invest today.






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