Wave energy buoyed by land purchase, marine surveys

Experimental wave energy buoys could be fine-tuned seven miles off of South Beach by 2021.

NEWPORT — While it could be a couple of decades before wave energy is a feasible source of power here on the coast, an energy station off the shoreline will soon host a series of experimental buoys which could boost the local grid with 20 megawatts of power.

Researchers with Oregon State University’s PacWave project have been mapping the seafloor and studying sediments and ecosystems in the test area, preparing for the burying of cable that will pipe energy from wave generators seven miles southwest of South Beach to a utility conversion and monitoring facility north of Waldport.

Oregon State University is finalizing the purchase of 4.5 acres off of Wenger Lane, where the energy from up to 20 generators will be monitored and converted for the grid.  

Much of the action will occur well offshore, said Burke Hales, chief scientist on the project.

“It isn’t something you should be able to see, hear or access from the beach,” he said.

In months ahead, there will be some noticeable effects of the project, though. The marine cable, buried four to five feet on the seafloor, will come ashore at Driftwood Beach State Park south of Seal Rock. Contractors will bore the cable 100 feet under the dunes, then up to the parking lot.  

Crews will modify and rebuild the parking lot to install manholes that service connections between the marine cable and a cheaper, less specialized cable that will take the electricity out to Highway 101 and south about a third of a mile to the Wenger Lane site.

Some 50 residents who gathered at Rogue Brewery on Wednesday night got an update on the project and wanted to know how locals will benefit, what sort of jobs will be created and how the environment will be protected.

An infusion into the local economy will come primarily from a boost to marine supply businesses and support services, Hales said. Once the site is up and running, it won’t take more than 10 to 12 people to staff it, so large gains in employment can’t be expected there, he said.

Monitoring part of the plan

Monitoring for wildlife entanglement in anchoring cables and noise pollution from the wave energy devices are key priorities, Hales assured the group.

While the presence of the buoys, cables and anchors may have some impact on the ocean, scientists don’t believe the mile-long and two-mile-wide test facility will degrade the waters or the sandy seafloor.

“We’re going to put a lot structure out there where there wasn’t any before,” Hale said. “We’re going to change the ecosystem, but probably most by attracting organisms.”

When the site is decommissioned, PacWave will not be allowed to leave behind a junk pile, he said.

“Ultimately, we have a 25-year lease and when that’s over, we have to get everything out of there,” he said.

Final design is set for spring of 2019. Four berths — each demarcated with lighted buoys and served by its own 5MW cable — will allow that same number of wave energy developers to set up shop by 2021. The project, intended to run out a maximum of 25 years, is budgeted at $50 million at full buildout. Some of that funding is still being sought, but $35 million is in the pipeline from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The project creates a pre-permitted space for commercial energy developers to test a variety of devices to harness the waves.  

A handful of developers have expressed serious interest in the site, piqued by the rarity and convenience of the pre-permitted facility, the project’s operations and logistics manager Dan Hellin told the newspaper.

The site is more than five years deep into permitting hurdles.

In an interview, Hellin acknowledged the savagery of winter storms and said it will fall to developers to make sure their devices can withstand swells in excess of 40 feet and the pounding of wind — conditions which have ripped weather and navigation buoys from their moorings in the past.  

“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “That’s part of the reason we have a test site.”

The audience absorbed the science and some of the history of wave energy generation, whose scale and ambitions locally were reduced over a decade in the face of the economic downturn and opposition from fishermen.

Support for “slow way”

Scaled back to a level that suits the environment and community, wave energy exploration is enjoying support from commercial fishermen that was noticeably lacking a decade ago. At the time, numerous applications for wave farms had fishing operators worried about large-scale loss of their grounds to the devices.

Concern about “death by 1,000 cuts” persists for fishermen, said longtime commercial operator Bob Eder, who is vice chairman of the stakeholder group Fishermen Involved in Natural Energy. That said, “I’m proud of the local fleet for seeing beyond our own needs and seeing the test site is a reasonable way to approach wave energy,” Eder said in a phone interview. “This is the slow way — finding a technology that works. Our group can see this is an appropriate fit for our community, and it really will deliver some economic benefit right away.”

The communication between scientists and the commercial fishing industry is something to be celebrated, Eder said.

“We support the knowledge-based industry,” he said. “We’re not excited about the prospect of hundreds of wave generators, loss of space and possible environmental impacts to our renewable resource. If there are proposals for large projects, we are going to have to turn to this community and say ‘help us.’”

Linda Grossman and her companion Gayle Hansen said they were excited about the prospect of the alternative technology and the possible public benefit of a new energy source.

“I think we all profit. There will be jobs,” said Grossman after Hales’ presentation. “It’s another technology that people in the area can benefit from. It’s the future. Students and young people who want to work in alternative energy — this is their chance to learn from what is happening.”

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