Trouble at sea
With concerns surfacing over wave-energy projects, and the beleaguered fishing industry worried about its future, a green-energy payoff could be stalled.
By Abraham Hyatt
Now that the backslapping in Salem over this year’s renewable energy bill has died down, here’s the real news about wave energy: It’s going to be at least five years before the state discovers which, if any, of the seven much-touted wave energy projects are viable.
That’s not to say wave energy in Oregon won’t happen. The technology has finally matured enough that new projects around the world aren’t just testing ideas, they’re laying the groundwork for large-scale energy projects. With some of the world’s leading wave-energy companies eager to build exploratory projects in Oregon, it may be only a matter of time before the Pacific helps power the state. In fact, the Irish company Finavera plans to install its first buoy near Bandon this summer in collaboration with Oregon State University.
But companies will have to answer a lot of questions before they get to that point. Conservationists are asking if whales will get tangled in the projects or if migration will be affected.
Fishing and crabbing industry groups have the biggest question of all: After surviving years of ever-tightening regulations, are they being asked to cede dozens of square miles of what they describe as prime fishing areas?
It’s unknown how many buoys ultimately will be in the seven proposed parks (see chart, above) or how many square miles all of them will occupy. Right now, the proposed buoy count is up to 800. One project off Reedsport alone would consist of 200 buoys — each would be 62 feet in diameter and extend 26 feet above, and 102 feet below the surface of the ocean — in a three-mile-long line.
It’s also unknown how much fish and crabs those areas produce. Steve Bodnar, executive director of the Coos Bay Trawlers’ Association, says a dollar amount must be established through some type of study or analysis before fishermen will feel comfortable with the projects.
“Is this going to cost our communities more than they’re earning now?” he asks.
So far, despite their various concerns, everyone with questions is working together to find answers. But Steve Kopf, a consultant with Ocean Power Technologies, the company behind the Reedsport project, says that support of the fishing industry is vital in ensuring a streamlined permitting process with the federal government. The industry may not be able to kill a project, but they will force companies like Kopf’s to “lawyer up,” as he put it.
And if some of the first, most promising projects are sidetracked into a possibly years-long legal morass, what will that do to the future of renewable energy off Oregon’s shores?
Oregon’s wave-energy projects
||WHO'S BEHIND IT
||STUDY PERMIT STATUS
|Newport OPT Wave Park, near Newport
||Ocean Power Technologies/local utility and government agencies
|Lincoln County Wave Energy Project, near Newport
|Florence Wave Park, 3 miles offshore
|Reedsport OPT Wave Park, 3 miles offshore
||Ocean Power Technologies/local utility and government agencies
||Approved Feb. 16
|Douglas County Wave and Tidal Energy Project, near mouth of Umpqua River
||Approved April 6
|Coos Bay OPT Wave Park Project, 2½ miles offshore
||Ocean Power Technology/local utility and government agencies
||Approved March 9
|Coos County Wave Project, 2 miles south of Bandon
||Approved April 30
MOST OF OREGON’S WAVES are born deep in the Pacific, thousands of miles away.
Here’s how it works: As wind blows across the ocean, energy is transferred into the water. It spins in a circular motion in the direction of the wind. Over a long enough distance the energy separates into long lines, or swells. Each band of energy passes through the ocean without actually moving the water — think of how a wood chip bobs up and down on the surface of a pond after a pebble is thrown in and the ripples expand.
Once those swells get close to shore, the shallow bottom disrupts the circular movement of the energy and water as the top of the swell plunges forward. Surfers harness the energy released in that violent intersection to move across the face of the breaking wave. Oregon’s wave energy farms, however, will float several miles offshore. Like the wood chip, they’d rise and fall with each passing swell, using that movement to generate electricity.
It’s a simple principle, and one that’s taken decades to perfect. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, scientists in Scotland alone looked at hundreds of devices. In 1995, a $7 million project designed to power 2,000 homes for 25 years was launched off the Scottish coast. It sank 20 days later. No other projects that decade failed quite that spectacularly, but neither did they make the kind of progress that generates headlines.
In the last 10 years, however, wave-energy technology has stopped sinking and is slowly learning to swim. Exploratory projects have sprung up in Hawaii, Australia, Japan, the North Sea and off the coast of Spain.
IN 2006, NEW JERSEY-BASED Ocean Power Technologies (OPT) was generating electricity from two buoys: one off Atlantic City, the other in Hawaii. Those are the same size buoys the company will install three miles off the coast of Reedsport next year. 2008 will be a busy year for OPT; along with a wave park it’s developing in Spain, the company hopes to install 13 more buoys — which likely will be built by Clackamas-based Oregon Iron Works — off Reedsport. If successful, they’ll pave the way for the 200-buoy park.
But before OPT attempts to get a federal permit for those 13 buoys, it wants to get all parties to agree to work with the company during the permitting process. If OPT can take that agreement to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), it streamlines the process.
And with a strong emphasis on renewable energy this year from both the governor’s office and the Legislature, there’s an enormous amount of interest in OPT’s permits. Oregon Solutions, a group created by the Legislature and now a part of Portland State University, works as a moderator of sorts in getting agencies and groups to work together on sustainability projects. This past year it has brought together nearly 40 state, federal, city, county and public utility agencies, along with fishing, crabbing, surfing and conservation groups to talk about OPT’s project.
This spring, group members aired a list of concerns: Will whales get tangled in the three lines that connect each buoy to the ocean floor? Will sharks be attracted to the electromagnetic field that buoys create? Since wave parks will decrease the size of the waves, how will that affect surfing or how the beach normally erodes?
There seems to be a cautious optimism that these questions can be answered. Which is good for OPT; it hopes to have that agreement in hand by halfway through this month, and then a permit filed in July. Work on finding solutions to any questions or problems would begin this summer.
FERC spokesman Jim Hastreiter describes a permit application without that tentative agreement as a “time bomb.” That’s because when people are unhappy, they hire lawyers. If there’s no agreement, it doesn’t change how the agency processes the permit, he says, but “it will take longer to defuse the bomb.”
SO WILL THERE BE A BOMB? In an April meeting with Oregon Solutions members in Reedsport, OPT’s Kopf emphasized that only one project is on the table at this point. He and others repeatedly reminded the group that the first permit was not tied to any other project. And most fishermen admitted that the 14 buoys are needed before the viability of any wave park is known.
But many fear it will also open the doors to an armada of wave energy projects along the coast. That’s not the only pressure the industry feels. Years of rising fuel prices and constricting regulations have resulted in lost jobs and lower profits. As work begins on statewide marine reserves, anxiety has increased.
“They feel like everyone is chipping away at their lives. The OPT project is not going to ruin anyone, but what comes next?” says Onno Husing, executive director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association.
Fishing groups have suggested different options to offset any economic impact to the fishing community, including some type of compensation. But Husing says it’s still too early in the process to say what any options would be. At this point, all OPT wants is to go to FERC with a permit that other groups say they’re willing to work on.
What will OPT do if there’s no agreement? Kopf sounds genuinely sad when he answers: “We go back to the traditional process where we all lawyer up. But what we really want to do is work together.”
But for some, every question leads to a larger question: What sacrifices will Oregon make in its quest for green energy? The whole state could benefit from the projects. It’s not just the governor who likes the color green; sustainable energy fits into the Oregon Business Plan’s goals. But who will lose their jobs? And what industries will be displaced?
“We don’t have all the answers,” Husing says. “And if anyone claims they know how it’s going to end up, they’re either delusional or they’re lying to you.
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