Waiting for wave energy

Waiting for wave energy

By Lee van der Voo

At the center of the debate is an oyster. It has no shell, stands over three stories tall and the muscle of its jaw is a pair of hydraulic pistons. When it anchors to the ocean floor, it arrives on a crane. More than $80 million is behind the scouting effort for its next home.

The Oyster (capital O) is Aquamarine Power’s answer to ocean energy. It generates power by capturing waves and pushing them to drive a hydroelectric turbine onshore. Fashioned in arrays, an Oyster farm can generate 100 megawatts of power a year, more lucrative than pearls. For the past six years, Scotland-based Aquamarine Power has been intensely focused on deploying it in wave-rich parts of the world, Oregon included.

As the search to bed the Oyster off Oregon mounts, this hulk of technology has become a symbol of the state’s planning savvy for some, a case in point for why Oregon has spent nearly three years drawing invisible lines around the ocean, zoning where such projects can locate.

But for local champions of a wave-energy industry still in its global infancy, the Oyster has become emblematic of something else: zig-zagging policy regarding ocean energy and the state’s own tendency to trip over its mixed directives, sometimes with bitter consequences for business.

“A few years ago a bunch of really smart people got together and identified areas of opportunity for the Oregon economy,” says Jason Busch, executive director of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust (OWET), a state-funded nonprofit that’s been charged with growing the wave industry since 2007.  “A lot of people smarter than me — I’m talking major business leaders around the state and political leaders through the Oregon InC process — thought ocean energy presented the highest beneficial impact to the Oregon economy.”

Since that effort created OWET, Busch says, “We’re out there talking to different companies trying to get them to come to Oregon, and then three years into the process all of a sudden the state says, uh, we’re not going to process any permits for the next 18 months or two years.”

Energy developers were what galvanized the surreal process of zoning the ocean, when a rush on lease applications in 2006 and 2007 prompted the Oregon Division of Land Conservation and Development to begin blocking out portions of the ocean for sensitive habitat, fishing, recreation and coastal views, among other things, in 2008.

But the Oyster has complicated matters by hitting the water faster than the new zoning rules. In December, Aquamarine Power applied for leases along 7,000 acres of the Oregon coast, aiming to deploy four testing devices to gauge conditions for the Oyster’s new home. The Oyster would ultimately occupy much smaller sites, about 70 feet deep by 1,400 feet long.

The state’s message to the water-ready wave company?

Wait.