With snow-capped mountains, shimmering lakes and vast expanses of forest, Oregon in the Pacific Northwest has no shortage of natural beauty.
In the waters off its coasts, a project attempts to harness the energy of nature by testing and analyzing wave energy converters, a technology that could have an important role to play in a transition to renewable energy .
Known as PacWave, the project revolves around two sites: PacWave North, “a test site for small-scale, prototype and maritime market technologies”, and PacWave South, which is in development and has received grants from the Ministry of Energy. and the State of Oregon, among others.
In March, PacWave South – which will be located 7 miles offshore in federal waters measuring between 70 and 75 meters deep – took an important step forward by announcing that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had granted Oregon State University (OSU) a license to “build and operate” a test facility at the site.
According to OSU, PacWave South is “the first commercial scale, utility-connected test site in the United States to obtain a FERC license and will be the first marine renewable energy research facility in federal offshore waters. from the Pacific Coast. “
In a statement at the time, Burke Hales, who is PacWave’s chief scientist, described the news as “a huge moment for this project and for the industry as a whole.”
Hales, who is also a professor at OSU’s College of Earth, Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, added that the license was “the first … of its kind to be issued in the United States.”
Once operational, PacWave South will consist of four berths. In total, the development will have the capacity to test up to 20 wave energy converters, or WECs.
But how do WECs work? According to the Brussels trade association Ocean Energy Europe, these types of devices are capable of “capturing the physical movement of swells and waves and transforming it into energy – usually electricity”. At PacWave South, submarine cables carry electricity from the WECs to an onshore site which, in turn, sends it to the grid.
According to the project’s website, the maximum output of PacWave South will be 20 megawatts (MW). The site is “pre-licensed,” which means in layman’s terms that WEC developers will not need to apply for permits or authorization to deploy their technology there.
If all goes according to plan, construction could begin this summer with operations starting in 2023. Once built, PacWave South would bolster the US Navy’s energy test infrastructure, which already includes the US Navy’s test site. wave energy from the US Navy in Hawaii.
In a telephone interview with UKTN last week, Hales sought to stress the importance for the United States of having a test site such as PacWave South, as well as the task facing the industry.
“I would say wave power is… a few to a few decades behind wind power,” he explained.
“And the real bottleneck in ketchup is that there is … really nowhere for these devices to test, basically, other than at a few sites in Europe: there is a site in Orkney, the site EMEC, (and) there is a site in the Bay of Biscay called BiMep. “
“But really nothing, nothing like it, nowhere else in the world, and certainly nothing like it in the United States,” he added, going on to explain how “extremely important” it was for the developers of have a large-scale testing ground.
Oceans of potential?
The US Department of Energy has described marine energy resources as having “the potential to significantly contribute to the US and global energy supply.”
Likewise, the International Energy Agency describes marine technologies as having “great potential”, but adds that additional political support is needed for research, design and development to “enable cost reductions. which accompany the commissioning of larger commercial factories ”.
Looking to the future, marine energy sources may have an important role to play in the United States
“As we move towards increasing penetrations of wind + solar + battery power, we need renewable resources available when the wind isn’t blowing, night and winter,” Bryson Robertson, Associate Professor and Director of Pacific Marine Energy Center at Oregon State University, told UKTN via email.
“These are all attributes of marine energy,” said Robertson, adding that they complement other renewable energy resources. “We need to diversify our renewables,” he explained, which in turn would ensure a robust, resilient, carbon-free and distributed energy system.
Laura Morton, who is the American Clean Power Association’s senior director of policy and regulatory affairs for offshore, echoed this view, telling UKTN via email that wave and tidal energy technologies “Could help complement wind, solar and energy storage in America’s transition to a cleaner, safer and more affordable energy system.” “
The progress of the PacWave project comes as governments around the world set emission reduction targets and attempt to build renewable energy facilities.
The reality on the ground shows how big a challenge this will be. In 2020, fossil fuels – particularly natural gas and coal – comfortably remained the largest source of electricity generation in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Globally, a UN report released in February showed that as of December 31 of last year, only 75 parties involved in the Paris Agreement had updated their NDCs, which are the goals of each country in terms of reducing emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change.
This represented only 40% of the total number of people involved, and together they represent only 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The interim report has been described as a “red alert for our planet” by UN Secretary General António Guterres.
“This shows that governments are far from the level of ambition needed to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees and achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement,” he added.
Work to do
While there is enthusiasm for the role that tidal and wave energy could play in the planet’s energy mix, the current global footprint of these technologies is small.
Recent figures from Ocean Energy Europe show that only 260 kilowatts (kW) of tidal capacity was added in Europe last year, while 200 kW of wave energy was installed.
According to Ocean Energy Europe’s outlook for 2021, “up to 3.1 MW” of wave power could be deployed this year. For the rest of the world, the OEE has only planned 850 kW of installations.
To put the above figures into context, industry body WindEurope has forecast 19.5 gigawatts of new wind power plants for Europe in 2021.
Given the above, what needs to be done to ensure that tidal and wave energy technologies mature and become viable options in the United States?
Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, told UKTN by email that Oregon State University receiving a license from FERC to build and operate PacWave South was “an important first step.” .
“Wave and tidal technologies can provide clean and reliable electricity to help meet our growing energy demands,” he added, “but to bring them to an impactful scale, significant investments in R&D are needed to truly catalyze the marine energy market. “
For his part, Bryson Robertson of Oregon State University raised a number of points. “We need time and reliable long-term federal financial support to put more devices in the water,” he said.
“The lack of the ability of marine power systems to test quickly, repeatedly and cost effectively is holding back the industry,” he added, noting that DOE’s investments in PacWave and other sites were “ extremely important ”.
“We must continue to invest in basic and basic research in this area,” he added.
“We need breakthroughs to significantly change the economy and see large-scale deployments – universities must be supported to develop the talent and workforce needed to create these innovations.”