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Wave Energy: Testing the Future in Oregon

“It’s clear that new alternative forms of generating electricity are required, and the ocean is an untapped frontier.”

Justin Klure,
Pacific Energy Ventures, LLC

In August, one of the first public wave energy testing facilities in the U.S. began operation in the ocean waters off Oregon’s coast. This mobile system will be used by companies and academic researchers to test new wave energy technology, measure and understand the wave resources, and study potential environmental issues.

It’s also a reminder for coastal resource managers across the country of the need to prepare as much as possible for the emerging ocean energy industry.

“There’s no doubt that energy exists in the ocean,” says Justin Klure, a managing partner with Pacific Energy Ventures, LLC. “I don’t know if it will be commercially viable 5, 10, or 20 years from now, but when you look at the trends regarding energy consumption, it’s clear that new alternative forms of generating electricity are required, and the ocean is an untapped frontier.”

He adds, “The potential of a significant renewable resource is what keeps everyone in the industry engaged and excited. How to do it in a way that protects the ecosystem and current uses is really the challenge.”

Many hope that the Ocean Sentinel—and other such testing facilities—will help shed light on some of the questions that wave energy poses.

The Oregon Coastal Management Program and Oregon Sea Grant Program, along with many other state and federal regulatory agencies, played an important role in permitting the testing facility while working to minimize environmental impacts and conflicts with other coastal uses, such as fishing and navigation.

The state is mapping out its regulatory process for marine renewable energy in a new chapter being developed for the Territorial Sea Plan, Oregon’s ocean planning document.

Ocean Energy

Potentially, there are many ways to tap the ocean for energy, including wind, tides, currents, salinity, and even its thermal features. While the Atlantic Coast is ideal for the development of the offshore wind industry, waves may be the most promising source of ocean energy for the Pacific Northwest.

Wave power devices extract energy directly from surface waves or from pressure fluctuations below the surface. Waves off the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii have been identified as good sites for the development of wave energy.

Researchers believe that, as wave technology improves, less ideal wave environments might become more accessible as energy sources and that wave energy facilities could be sited further offshore.

Great Unknown

While pilot projects around the world have reported little to no environmental impacts, the greatest unknown about wave energy is how a large commercial facility will affect the ocean environment.

Potential environmental impacts include withdrawal of wave energy from the ecological system, interactions with marine life such as migrating gray whales, atmospheric and oceanic emissions, noise, bottom impacts from anchors, and visual appearances. Environmental impacts from cable landings are a concern, as are electrical and magnetic energy imparted into seawater. A wave energy facility could pose a threat to navigation.

Wave energy facilities could also have environmental benefits, such as acting as artificial reefs.

Testing, Testing

With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the $1.5 million Ocean Sentinel was deployed off the coast of Oregon the week of August 22 by the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center (NNMREC), a collaborative center with Oregon State University and the University of Washington as partners.

The bright yellow Ocean Sentinel structure is a standard National Operational Model Archive and Distribution System (NOMADS) and NOAA buoy platform that is shaped like a boat. Equipped with an array of measuring instruments, the Ocean Sentinel floats on the water’s surface and is set up in a one-square-mile test site two miles northwest of Yaquina Head off the Oregon Coast.

Wave energy devices are hooked up to the mobile test facility’s instrument panel, which can measure the amplitude of waves, energy output, ocean currents, and the speed of the wind. Data on environmental factors, such as variations in acoustics, electromagnetic fields, differences in marine life, sediment, and more, are also being collected. Real-time data are transmitted back to land through Wi-Fi and cellular connections.

The first device to be tested was the Wet-NZ, developed by private industry and the government of New Zealand.

“The Ocean Sentinel provides an alternative to needing to bring cable all the way back to shore,” notes Kaety Hildenbrand, marine fisheries extension faculty member for Oregon State University and Oregon Sea Grant Extension.

Site selection for an estimated $25 million “grid-connected” testing facility for larger wave energy devices is currently underway off Oregon’s coast.

Relationship Building

One of the important roles for Oregon coastal resource managers in addressing the Ocean Sentinel and the state’s marine spatial planning efforts for ocean energy has been working to ensure open communication among industry, researchers, fishermen, state and federal agencies, and many other stakeholders.

“Sea Grant has helped us with all of our community outreach and has been indispensable in helping us develop relationships,” notes Belinda Batten, director of the NNMREC.

She adds, “Most developers don’t think about how important that is. You’ve got to talk to the local communities and fishermen. This is their coast and their ocean.”

Hildenbrand and other Sea Grant staff members have helped with outreach by facilitating many town hall meetings, conferences, and discussions with community leaders, as well as helping to create siting plans and engage with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to look at potential environmental impacts.

Keeping It Consistent

The Coastal Zone Management Act’s federal consistency clause has also been key, says Juna Hickner, coastal state–federal relations coordinator for the Oregon Coastal Management Program.

“The project needed to go through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get a permit,” Hickner explains, “and any time there’s a federal permit, it has to be approved as consistent with our networked coastal management program.”

Hickner coordinated various state agency reviews of the permit, worked with networked state agencies to make sure their concerns were addressed through the federal permitting process, and issued the final statement on behalf of the state that the project is consistent with Oregon’s coastal management program.

New Chapter

In 1995, Oregon approved its Territorial Sea Plan, a robust institutional framework for ocean resource management. The plan established policies and procedures, coordinated state agencies, and provided a strategy for protecting rocky shores, the state’s most significant marine habitat.

“Through the planning process,” says Paul Klarin, marine affairs coordinator for the Oregon Coastal Management Program, “we incorporated NNMREC into the Territorial Sea Plan, recognizing their Newport ocean-test facility as a special-use site devoted to renewable energy testing. Basically we gave them the space to operate in and some simple standards to apply to any devices that they deploy there.”

The state is in the process of developing a new chapter for the Territorial Sea Plan to prepare for larger wave-energy testing sites and the potential for commercial proposals. The new chapter will include a spatial-mapping component with 200 data layers, a resource inventory, and review and regulatory standards.

“We’re lucky to have the Territorial Sea Plan already in place,” notes Patty Snow, program manager for the Oregon Coastal Management Program. “It gives us a framework to look at this new use of the territorial sea, work with our partner agencies to look at the effects, and fulfill the requirements to conserve marine resources and ecological function.”

“The inherent challenge,” Batten notes, “is that these projects have never been done before. Even though the technology is going to change over time—maybe significantly—we can begin now to frame how we will analyze the potential effects, and that’s critical.”

She adds, “I would encourage managers to get out in front of this issue. Be engaged early.”


For more information on the Ocean Sentinel, contact Belinda Batten at (541) 737-9492 or Belinda.Batten@oregonstate.edu, or Justin Klure at (503) 475-2999 or jklure@peventuresllc.com. For more information on the Territorial Sea Plan, contact Patty Snow at (503) 373-0050, ext. 281, or patty.snow@state.or.us, Juna Hickner at (971) 239-9460 or juna.hickner@state.or.us, or Paul Klarin at (503) 373-0050, ext. 249, or paul.klarin@state.or.us. For more information on Oregon Sea Grant’s role, contact Kaety Hildenbrand at (541) 574-6534, ext. 27, or Kaety.Hildenbrand@oregonstate.edu.

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