Oregon pioneers nation’s first commercial wave energy farm

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Historical insight into wave energy stakeholders

Reedsport mayor welcomes wave energy; fishermen keep distance

(Gloria Oh/MEDILL)

Oregon pioneers nation’s first commercialized wave energy farm

State of wave energy in the nation

REEDSPORT, Ore. – Wave energy could generate 15 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030, according to the Department of Energy.

But while federal support for research, such as the Navy installing wave generating buoys at the Kaneohe Bay of Hawaii, ocean energy remains low on the radar screen for clean power. That’s about to change.

Ocean Power Technologies will deploy a test buoy off the coast of Reedsport, Ore., later this year. The New Jersey-based company plans to establish the nation’s first 1.5 megawatt wave energy hub with 10 bouys and enough generating capacity to power more than 1,000 homes.

In late August, the company received a 35-year license for the facility from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commissions, the first such license ever issued.

Oregon Iron Works is working with OPT to build the buoy. If the first commercialized wave energy facility in Oregon is successful, the state will have pioneered an avenue for jobs in Oregon and more wave energy facilities in the coastal state.

Wave energy developers: Ocean Power Technologies

Charles Frederick Dunleavy, CEO of Ocean Power Technologies, cites Oregon’s progressive energy policies as one of the key reason enabling him to move forward with installing a wave energy farm off the coastline.

There were a couple of other crucial factors that made development in Oregon possible. “Number one, there’s very good waves. Height translates to strength. Another aspect is at the gubernatorial office,” he said, with Oregon being strong in advocating renewable energy and sustainability. “It’s important because it shows that at the state level, there’s a strong initiative to support wave energy. It’s not just about waves, but addresses the role that wave energy can play.”

Oregon is also ideal as the first testing site because of its existing infrastructure. With a strong manufacturing base from timber pulp mills and other maritime industry assets, the state has the local know-how and capability to build the wave energy converters.

When broached on the topic of local impact, Dunleavy, like any cogent salesman, takes care to be sensitive to all the parties with vested interests. “Even putting in one buoy into the water, has created or saved an important number of marine manufacturing jobs. Our vendor has to go out and buy things, so it’s a real knock-on effect to the benefit of the local economy,” he said.

“It’s a fundamental part of our business strategy to use as much local resources as possible. It reduces cost from our business standpoint, and then from the view of the state of Oregon, using existing infrastructure. We hope to work with the fishermen,” he continued.

Fishermen are expressing concern over the impact of the buoys crabbing in particular. Engineers are finessing wave energy converters to withstand the violent ocean conditions under water. And over the past couple of years, preliminary studies have looked into the potential environmental effects wave farms may have on coastal wildlife and ecology.

Oregon landscape

REEDSPORT, Ore. – The ocean, the trees and even the sky in Oregon appear larger than life. The foaming waves crash against the rocks more fiercely, the cliffs jut out at sharper angles and the fir trees stand tall and weary with a haunting presence.

The lush foliage is so green you start seeing blue. It might be the ever-present fog hovering between the trees, threading its way down in misty droplets between coniferous limbs.

The breathtaking landscape has affected Oregonians to the core. They are rugged, full of good cheer, gruff – and hardy. They pride themselves on self-sufficiency and removal from life’s modern amenities. Here, the term “roaming” could be considered a state of mind while driving through miles of winding roads where there is no 3G or cellular reception.

Spend a few moments close to the coastline and it’s hard not to feel kinship with the wilderness.

Wave energy in Oregon

Oregon is one of only two states to offer unfettered public access of the coastline and ocean beaches. Gov. Owswald West (in office 1911-15) first took action to protect Oregon’s 363-mile coastline long before Gov. Tom McCall helped enact the Oregon Beach Bill in 1967 to guarantee the “free and uninterrupted use of the beaches” for the public.

This long-standing tradition of protecting public resources remains deep-rooted in the nature of Oregonian fishermen. Different fleets take turns harvesting various fisheries according to the season and in this way share the bounties of the sea.

These fishermen struggle with the idea of cordoning off a portion of the coastline for what will be the nation’s first commercialized wave energy farm in Reedsport, Ore. They contend the privately owned wave farms will restrict access.

For the past few years, developing wave energy in the state has been an ongoing project with relatively little visibility. After a series of delays, Ocean Power Technologies, a New Jersey-based company, will be installing a limited number of power buoys at the end of this summer.

The development potential of this alternative power has been simmering quietly as a research priority. The Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, a joint research facility of Oregon State University and the University of Washington tests buoy prototypes. Hatfield Marine Science Center has been assessing the potential ecological impact of this alternative energy.

“We’re basically at the stage where we’re ready to do field tests and start to make observations and see how well our model holds up,” said Merrick Haller, an associate professor of coastal and ocean engineering at OSU. Haller is researching the impact wave energy converters might have on ocean currents and sediment transplant.

“I think that fishermen are concerned that it will limit access to their prime fishing grounds, so there is a lot of discussion of where things will go,” Haller said.

While local fishermen stand the most to lose, both in terms of real estate and money, other stakeholders see the future of wave energy as an opportunity for local economic growth. The state is currently facing declining growth in its manufacturing and timber industries.

Reedsport

Reedsport is an idyllic coastal community of 4,146 people caught in the middle of the wave power debate. Situated along Oregon’s central coastline, at the confluence of three rivers, it also considers itself the gateway to the 40-mile Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area.

Reedsport Mayor Keith Tymchuk calls and cheerfully announces he will contact me in a couple minutes because he’s entering a dead zone for cell service. Tymchuk was off camping on the one spare week he had from his mayoral and teaching duties and graciously agreed to return home for an interview.

Tymchuck pushed for wave energy in his community from the start – seven and a half years ago – and is a vocal advocate for bringing this new power to Reedsport. Over the phone his voice belies his age. Full of energy, he sounds like a young teacher at Reedsport Charter Community High School, where he teaches.

But a silvery head pops out of his Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. He’s been teaching at the high school for more than 31 years and proudly points out his senior class picture that hangs in the high school’s empty hallway.

In fact, Tymchuck’s active participation in his town runs in his blood. His father, Tom Tymchuk, served as the mayor and his mother, Marlene Tymchuk, was voted the state’s teacher of the year in 1980.

Tymchuk got on board early with wave energy. He wears many hats for this coastal community. He is port commissioner and manager and is on the board of directors for Oregon’s Wave Energy Trust. As one of the earlier voices recognizing the potential, he hosted the first Pacific coast wave energy summit.

“We’ve seen two to three lifetimes in this,” he said. “The first stage was generally supportive. The second was conflicts with commercial fishermen. We had a year and a half project called Oregon Solutions, which was getting everyone signing on the dotted line of a legal agreement of what was going to happen with state and federal agencies. The third part is the ‘wait-and-see attitude.’”

That “wait-and-see” period is coming to an end – Ocean Power Technologies plans to start installing its wave energy buoys in nearby waters this fall.

Tymchuk views the issue as “much less environmental than it is economic.” It’s easy to see why. He characterizes his community as resilient in the face of recession, but the reality remains – his community is changing. “We’ve seen a demographic shift from working families with a lot of kids to much more of a retirement community,” he said.

With job opportunities becoming scarce, the younger generation is leaving town. “I love the idea of what the industrial benefit to the state may be,” he said.

Dungeness crabbing

The glassy water ripples with gentle movement as a sea lion glides through Charleston Harbor just a few miles away from Coos Bay. The distinct smell of fish and oil from exhaust engines permeate the saltwater air. Rotting piers coated with mossy algae and unkempt kelp bob on the water like undonned mermaid wigs.

(Gloria Oh/MEDILL)

Boats docked at the wharf rock gently back and forth as seagulls fly low in search of fish scraps. Pelicans rest on craggy rocks abutting the shoreline. Colorful buoys and netting gear coil atop the vessels’ decks. Nearly all of them are filled with crab pots.

Dungeness crabbing is the most valuable fishing in Oregon and is a vital part of the Pacific Northwest’s coastal economy since commercial harvesting began in the late 1800s. The crab is the official state crustacean.

Crabbing season begins Dec. 1 and runs through Aug. 14, although nearly 75 percent of the annual harvest is caught during the frigid winter months. An average harvest brings in 10 million pounds of crab, but there can be boom years – 21 million pounds were hauled in the 2010-2011 season. The 2009-2010 harvest did even better and raked in nearly $45 million with 23.2 million pounds of crab.

A plethora of other fish abound in Oregon waters, including pink shrimp, salmon, tuna, clams, Pacific whiting and sea urchins. But Dungeness crabbing holds the most value as a commodity. Oregon has built a reputation for its crabs and is the world’s largest producer.

“What it boils down to is real estate,” said Nick Furman, executive director of Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, a commodity commission that operates under the umbrella of the state’s Department of Agriculture.

“Dungeness crab fishery from an industry standpoint, has the most skin in the game so to speak, and the most potential for adverse impact of any of the user groups and certainly any other fisheries that access the territorial seas by virtue of the fact that it’s a real estate fishery,” Furman said. “It happens to need the same type of bottom configuration and topography that the current generation of wave energy developers suggest.”

(Gloria Oh/MEDILL)

The fishermen

Rick Lilienthal speaks slowly and deliberately paired with a gruff voice and a deep weathered tan. He doesn’t speak much. Lilienthal has fished his entire life and notes a long ocean heritage. His family has been fishing off Oregon’s coastline for more than 100 years.

With his dark eyes brooding off into the distance and his salt and pepper mustache, he seems bonded to his ancestors and the sea wanderers of generations past.

While permitting has already taken place for Ocean Power Technologies to come into Reedsport, Lilienthal still struggles with the idea of restricting a prime crabbing spot for 50 years. It translates to a lot of jobs for working class fishermen.

“We offered a spot pretty close,” Lilienthal said of attempts to negotiate a spot with Ocean Power Technologies, but he said they didn’t take it.

Both Dungeness crabbers and Ocean Power Technologies are staking out long stretches of muddy bottoms in more shallow coastal waters. In order for OPT to be cost-effective, it can’t go farther than the state’s territorial seas, which extend out for three miles.

That’s because it costs millions of dollars for every extra mile cables have to run out to collect the energy stored from the wave energy converters. With the current location, Ocean Power Technologies will be using the outfall lines from the timber mills for the cables to run through.

What’s ahead?

The future of wave energy off Oregon’s coastline is shrouded in fog, caught in a sea of many voices. It won’t be until the power buoys are planted in the water that the fog may rise, offering a better view of actual impact.

Two primary voices resonate through the crashing waves – seekers of change versus traditionalists. One frame of mind can’t help but look at the local economic impact commercial wave development could have on Oregon. Another voice says this technology is not proven and asks at what cost do you sacrifice jobs of those who have been peacefully using the water to test a newfangled idea?

The planning has taken place, the ongoing research continues and the squabbling carried out during many meetings between developers, policymakers and fishermen. But everyone agrees that, “until we get in the water, we won’t know,” said Keith Tymchuk.

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