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Marine Energy Series

Part 1: 

Wave Power to Virginia? Scotland Shows the Way


This week, we’re reporting on marine energy – power generated from waves, currents and tides.  As a state with 112 miles of coastline, Virginia should be a prime candidate for development of this resource, but so far there’s no sign of an industry.  To understand why, reporter Sandy Hausman traveled to Scotland, ground zero for efforts to exploit marine energy in Europe.

Orkney is a chain of 70 islands off the coast of Northern Scotland – a cool, misty place where Stonehenge-like monuments rise alongside grazing sheep and cattle.  Its best-known export might be Highland Park whiskey, and its best-known citizen might be Dave Gray, senior producer for the BBC and host of a morning show that highlights local happenings.

“Hello and good morning … in the general election … graduates go … as they leave college … comin’ up now at 8 o’clock.  First, the news.”

Over the years, Gray has seen a growing interest in renewable energy.  The wind here now supply all the electricity used by the main island’s 20,000 residents, and the economy is strong.

“It’s had an effect alright. There’s lots of development.  There are jobs, windmills – things like that.  We’ve got piers; we’ve got buildings that have been built on the back of the renewable energy industry, so there are lots of things happening.” 

Orkney can now meet all of its electrical needs, and at the European Marine Energy Center, director Neal Kermode says they’re working on ways to store the excess – charging the island’s 35 electric cars and shooting electricity into fresh water to split hydrogen from oxygen for use in rechargeable batteries.

“We’re just about to contract for building an electrolizer to produce hydrogen, and then a fuel cell for using that hydrogen to demonstrate how we can turn sea water into portable fuels. Once you have hydrogen, you’re into a whole different economy, because suddenly you can make methane, you can make plastics, you can make petroleum – because that’s the fundamental building block of all the hydrocarbons.” 

Orkney could also share its extra power, but Dave Gray says no one is willing to pay for a cable to connect this energy-rich area with major population centers in the UK.

“It is something that’s seen as a crop – something that we’re producing here that we can export to other places, but if you can’t get it off the island, it’s just so much wasted time.” 

Virginia would not have that problem, since one of this state’s largest population centers -- Hampton Roads – is on the coast, with a robust connection to the grid.  But we face another problem that confronts developers everywhere.  Marine energy is a brand new industry.

John Breslin is General Manager of  SmartBay Ireland, a not-for-profit  set up to manage his country’s demonstration center on Galway Bay. We caught up with him at a conference in Washington, D.C.

“If you look how long it took to actually develop the modern wind turbine, it took 25 years. + What’s happening at the moment is consolidations.  We have lots of different types of devices that harness power in different ways.  We’re going to see some people drop off.  They’re going to enter the valley of death and not come back.  What will happen over the next five to ten years is a device or a few types of devices will emerge, and that’s when this industry will really take off.”

Until then, there are no economies of scale.  It’s expensive to produce small numbers of underwater turbines, and the cost of installing them is relatively high, all at a time when the public has access to cheaper alternatives.  Here, again, is the BBC’s Dave Gray.

“What’s wrong at the moment is that there’s no desperation.  There’s still loads of fossil fuels.  There’s still plenty of gas from Russia, so somebody’s got to say, ‘Right. This is a lot of money, but somebody’s got to get it done.’”

In our next report, we’ll meet some of those who are getting it done in the U.S. and assess Virginia’s potential in the evolving world of marine energy.

Part 2:

West Coast Waves Promise Clean Power

This month, the U.S. Department of Energy will choose twenty semi-finalists in a contest to design devices that can harvest the power of ocean waves. Ninety-two teams of inventors have applied for more than $2 million, and four of them are from Virginia.

Sandy Hausman reports on who’s in the marine energy game and why.

When it comes to wave power, Oregon’s coast is a hot spot.  Belinda Batten directs the Northwest National Marine Renewables Center in Corvallis.

“The waves are always bigger on the west coast of continents, because the waves are created by the wind, and they’re flowing from the west to the east.” 

That’s one reason Oregon State University is action central for testing of marine energy technologies.  Another reason – it’s built the nation’s largest indoor flume – a canal designed for 3-D study of waves.

“We have video cameras, we have pressure gauges, load cells, we have accelerometers and a picture of the wave as it is approaching, so we are talking about maybe 150 different instruments.”Today, lab director Pedro Lamonica says they’re looking at the big daddy – a tsunami, scaled down to five feet for expert analysis.

Studies here will help scientists and engineers to design structures that can withstand tsunamis and still generate power from waves, currents and tides.  OSU grad Mike Morrow and two friends formed a company called M3 Wave to develop and market one of those technologies. 

“M3 Wave was a company formed by three guys named Mike.  3M was already taken, and + fundamentally what we’re doing is we’re developing a technology that sits on the ocean floor and turns waves into electricity.  We’re really harnessing the wave’s swell more so than the chop at the top.” 

Studies in the lab show there’s a lot more power on the surface, but Morrow says there’s a lot more risk too.  Storms and boat traffic could damage floating hardware, but his device sits safely on the ocean floor.  It’s tested.  It works, but M3 can’t get funding to push its technology to market.

“It’s impossible.  We’re in the R&D phase in this industry, and they’re not interested in funding R& D.  They’re interested in funding what’s going to show a return on investment.”

That’s where government funding comes in.  Belinda Batten says it’s essential to making marine energy happen.

“We have had a steady stream of federal investment, and that’s what will get us through to the proven technologies so then commercialization can happen.  We have benefited from bi-partisan support at the federal level, and so that has really gotten us to where we are today.”

And this month,  the U.S. Department of Energy will hand out some of that cash.  It’s offering $6.5 million in prize money to the top 20 wave power generating  designs.  Ninety-two teams have applied – two from Blacksburg, one from Hampton Roads and a fourth from Vienna.  Professor Eric Paterson leads one of Virginia Tech’s teams.  He figures this country could meet all of its electric needs with energy from the ocean. 

“It’s a large amount of energy.  It would require about 450 nuclear power plants to generate all the electricity demanded in the U.S.”

But Virginia has a problem when it comes to generating power from waves.

"The Virginia wave energy resource, anywhere on the East Coast, is actually not very good.  Ask any surfer.  They’re pretty small.”

That’s George Hagerman, another Virginia Tech professor who’s entered the Wave Energy competition. 

“California, Oregon, southeast Alaska, Washington State, the west coast of Mexico and Central America, Western Europe, the British Isles, Scandinavia, that’s where the big government investment is.”

Still there might be a place for marine energy in Virginia, and experts think it could be installed at minimal risk to fish, marine mammals and sea birds.  Details in our next report.

Part 3:

Marine Mammals and Fish Befriend Turbines

Conditions off the coast of Virginia are ideal for construction of offshore wind turbines, but scientists see a limited role for marine energy – power generated from waves, currents and tides. 

That’s because prevailing winds on the planet blow from west to east, creating bigger waves on the west coast of continents.  Still there is some potential here, and experts say turbines can likely be placed off our shores with minimal risk to wildlife.

Sandy Hausman reports.

Since she left home in Roanoke to study marine biology, Sarah Henkel has been looking at the possible impact wind and water turbines could have on whales and dolphins, fish and birds.  Now an assistant professor at the Hatfield Marine Science Center at Oregon State University, she believes wildlife could be a bigger problem for the turbines than the turbines are for them. 

Just ask the sea lions that lounge along Oregon’s coast.


“Sea lions love to haul out on buoys.  They love it, and so there’s a lot of engineering and design going into how do you shape this or coat this with Teflon so that a sea lion can’t hang out on it, because it would definitely affect the performance of an engineer-generating device if a sea lion was sitting on it.” 

Her colleague, Oregon State  Professor Ted Brecken, agrees.

“You know you can imagine that if you have a wave energy converter that’s well designed to operate in a very particular way, it might behave a little differently if it’s got a couple thousand pounds of sea lions on it.”

Other marine mammals could become tangled in lines that hold water turbines in place, but Henkel says collisions are unlikely.  Birds that crash into land-based turbines may be flying 50 miles an hour, but ocean creatures move much more slowly.

Oregon State Researchers

“Gray whales aren’t zipping around, so we think they have the wherewithal to avoid these kinds of things, but it’s definitely something that’s worth looking into, and if parks ever get large, and the whales prefer to go around them as they migrate, that could add length to their migration time.  Some species don’t feed the entire time they’re migrating, so if they have to go an extra day without feeding, it could be a little hard on them.”

Now it’s true that noise could be a problem for some ocean residents, according to biologist Gareth Davies.  From a base in Scotland, he consults energy companies in 20 countries.

“There are instances of where whales and dolphins and seals, and indeed, fish have been shown to react to persistent and loud sources of noise.  The oil and gas industry undertakes seismic surveys – which are one of the loudest noises that man gives rise to in the sea.  Large shipping also can cause avoidance behavior.  The level of noise that supertankers generate is far, far greater than any of the noise from the renewable energy devices.”

And he says existing energy sources are a bigger threat to wildlife with oil spills fouling their waters, coal and gas polluting the air, and excess carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere causing the oceans to acidify.  That’s why he hopes to see marine energy evolving in North America.

“It’s really worthwhile looking at the assets you’ve got locally – thinking about whether Virginia produces energy in other forms, and if it doesn’t, what would happen to Virginia if it started to produce some of its own energy.  It’s not just the energy itself.  It’s about the jobs and the self-reliance that it brings -- getting experience that you can share with other people in other parts of the world.” 

In truth, our waves are too small and the expense too great to make marine energy viable in Virginia, but someday it may be.  Virginia Tech Professor George Hagerman thinks it will make sense to harvest wave power once we have wind turbines offshore.

“You’ve already got the cable infrastructure out there.  You’ve already got the  environmental permitting.  It’s already a known spot in the ocean to be avoided by ships and other users. It could enhance the value of offshore wind on the east coast.”

And there’s a Virginia company that could make it happen, once they’ve installed commercial wave farms in Europe.  We’ll profile that enterprise in our next report.  

Part 4:

VA Company a Leader in Marine Energy

Four engineers from Virginia Tech have beat 72 other teams to win a place in the federal government’s Wave Energy competition.  Eric Paterson, George Hagerman, Mike Philen and Heng Xiao  now have the chance to win $2 million to build their design which would turn wave power into electricity.

Another Virginia team chose not to enter the contest.  Instead, they’re hoping to leapfrog the competition by installing a successful commercial wave farm in Europe.  

Sandy Hausman reports.

Sandy Riesky and Matt Hantzmon are a couple of entrepreneurs from Charlottesville who found a promising wave power technology in Oregon about 15 years ago.  They licensed it, hired a group of west coast engineers, and began making modifications, but their company, Columbia Power Technologies, didn’t spend a fortune building one prototype after the next for tests in the ocean.  Instead, CEO Reenst Lesemann says they took advantage of new computer modeling technologies.

“Our view is that it’s better to fail quickly and to fail on paper so to speak or in a computer model rather than going through the time and expense to build a prototype, go out and test it,  and then see that you’ve got a failure.”

Once they had a success on paper, they proceeded to test their prototype for a full year in Puget Sound.

“And that’s one of the longest sea trials of anybody on record in the industry worldwide.”

They used a simple mooring technology, and designed their device, called the StingRAY, to withstand storms that occur every 50-100 years.

The StingRAY is different from other floating wave devices.  It looks like a giant yellow step ladder, and it’s made of fiberglass instead of  steel.

“If you look at the coast guard, when they have a buoy out in the water, every three or four years that buoy has to come in to be stripped and repainted and reconditioned, and that’s really expensive when you talk about a large piece of equipment or a whole farm of wave energy devices.”

Each StingRAY will weigh a thousand tons,  Lesemann says it will be fairly cheap and easy to install them.

“We’re designing them so that they can be towed and deployed very quickly and recovered very quickly, but it’s a large piece of equipment.  To make utility scale electricity, it’s not something you can do with a smaller device.”

And so far, he notes, investors are on board – among them, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Navy. 

“We’ve one 8 competitive grants since 2008 to develop and test the system.”

In January, they’ll begin the last round of testing off a military base in Hawaii.  If all goes well, Lesemann says that state could be an early adopter of wave power.

“Hawaii is still 70% diesel.  It’s really hard to believe, but they’re still burning that much diesel, but they are.  Southeast Alaska is very similar. Those communities are spending 50-60 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity, which is four to five times what we pay here  on the east coast.”

But the bigger opportunity is in Europe, where prices for power are high and governments are anxious to be energy independent. 

“It’s got to be a very scary place to wake up depending on Russian natural gas every morning.  They have made the conscious decision throughout most of  Europe to move away from nuclear energy, and so that leaves a gap.”

Columbia is already talking with European utilities, and if they should sign on, the cost of this technology will likely come down.

“We’ve seen the cost of energy for wind and solar really fall through the floor in the last five years, and that is really because of economies of scale and production volumes.”

When that happens, Lesemann says wave technology could finally be right for Virginia, and if climate change is as dangerous as scientists say it will be, Neil Kermode at the European Marine Energy Center, says we may all be turning sooner  to the sea for salvation.  

“We are pressing on very hard, because we absolutely know there is energy in the water out there, and we know we’re going to need this stuff.  When will it happen?  I just don’t know, but the thing is, we have done that piece of alchemy – of turning sea water into electricity.  We can make this work.” 

Sandy Hausman reported from Europe with the support of an Energy and Climate Media Fellowship from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.