Wave-Energy Generation: The Beginning

A lot of energy in every wave. Photo by David Spinks, some rights reserved.

Many words are written on developments in the wind and solar energy industries day in and day out, but this week another alternative energy source is making waves. The New York Times reported Monday that the first commercially licensed grid-connected wave-energy device in the country will be launched in October. The New Jersey-based company, Ocean Power Technologies, is sending a barge to carry a 260-ton generator to its anchorage off the central coast of Oregon.

The Pacific coastline from Northern California through Washington State is particularly well-suited for wave-energy generation due to consistent swell from never-ending northern Pacific winds. The weather, though, presents a problem of its own: stormy seas in the winter. Just 15 years ago, in fact, one of the first test-buoy generators sank shortly after it was launched off the Oregon coast.

Wave-energy technology is so new that OPT engineers and observers do not know what exactly to expect. The buoy has an onboard computer that collects input from ‘wave riders’ floating farther out in the ocean to adapt the generator to each incoming wave, as well as to gather data to help engineers understand the tiny differences between waves. While the OPT buoy floats on the surface, there are other ways to generate electricity from waves – other concepts have put generators on the ocean floor or rising vertically through the surface.

The near future of energy development could also hinge on the OPT buoy’s success. The federal permit issued last month approved up to 10 generators, which would produce enough energy to power 1,000 homes, but more important perhaps is the potential for future investment. Big power companies have mostly stood on the sidelines while smaller companies worked on wave energy generation, so Ocean Power Technologies has relied on grant money from public and private sources. If OPT proves the concept, private investment could flow into the industry, not just in the Pacific Northwest but in other spots with long fetch for ocean swell like parts of the coast of Western Europe and South America.

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