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Marine Energy: Harvesting Power from Nature

West Coast Waves Promise Clean Power

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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.

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.

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Oregon State has the nation's largest flume -- a facility designed to study waves.

Today, lab director Pedro Lamonica says they’re looking at the big daddy – a tsunami, scaled down to five feet for expert analysis.

“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.”

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.

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