With snow-capped mountains, shimmering lakes, and vast expanses of forest, Oregon in the Pacific Northwest is not lacking in natural beauty.
In offshore waters, a project is trying to harness nature’s energy by testing and analyzing wave energy converters, a technology that could play an important role in the transition to renewable energies.
Known as PacWave, the project is based on two sites: PacWave North, “a test site for small, prototype, and maritime market technologies,” and PacWave South, which is under development and has received grants from the Department of Energy and the state of Oregon among others.
In March, PacWave South, located 7 miles offshore in federal waters at depths of 70 to 75 meters, took a significant step forward when it was announced that Oregon State University’s (OSU) Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (OSU) had a license for “construction and operation of a test facility on site.
According to OSU, PacWave South is “the first commercial-scale utility test site in the US to be FERC licensed and will be the first marine renewable energy research facility in federal waters off the Pacific coast.”
In a statement at the time, PacWave’s chief scientist Burke Hales described the news as “a big moment for this project and for the industry as a whole”.
Hales, who is also a professor at OSU College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, added that the license was “the first of its kind to be issued in the US.”
Once PacWave South is operational, it will consist of four berths. Overall, the development will be able to test up to 20 wave energy converters (WECs) on a supply scale.
How do WECs work? According to the Brussels-based trade association Ocean Energy Europe, these types of devices can “capture the physical movement of waves and waves and convert it into energy – usually electricity”. At PacWave South, subsea cables will carry power from the WECs to a land location, which in turn sends it to the grid.
According to the project website, the maximum output of PacWave South is 20 megawatts (MW). The site is “pre-approved,” which in simple terms means that WEC developers do not need to apply for permits or permits to deploy their technology there.
If everything goes according to plan, construction could start operations this summer, which will begin by 2023. Once built, PacWave South would strengthen the American ocean energy testing infrastructure, which already includes the US Navy’s wave energy testing facility in Hawaii.
In a phone interview with CNBC last week, Hales wanted to highlight the importance of the US to a test site like PacWave South, as well as the abandonment of the sector.
“I would say that wave energy … is a couple to a few decades behind wind energy,” he explained.
“And the real bottleneck in ketchup is that there really … isn’t a place where these devices can basically be tested anywhere other than some other locations in Europe: there’s a location in Orkney, the EMEC site, (and) there is a place in the Bay of Biscay called BiMep.“”
“But really nothing, nothing like that, nowhere else in the world and certainly nothing like that in the US,” he added, explaining how important it is for developers to have a comprehensive test site “of vital importance”.
Oceans of potential?
The US Department of Energy has described marine energy resources as “having the potential to make a significant contribution to the energy supply of the US and the world”.
Similarly, the International Energy Agency describes marine technologies as “great potential” but adds that additional policy support is needed for research, design and development to “enable the cost reductions that come with bringing larger commercial facilities up and running”.
Looking to the future, marine energy sources could play an important role in the US.
“As we move towards the proliferation of wind, solar and battery batteries, we need renewable resources that are available when the wind is not blowing, night and winter,” said Bryson Robertson, associate professor and director of Pacific Marine Energy Center at Oregon State University, CNBC said via email.
“These are all attributes of ocean energy,” said Robertson, adding that they complement other renewable energy sources. “We need to diversify our renewable energies,” he said, which in turn would ensure a robust, resilient, carbon-free and distributed energy system.
Laura Morton, American Clean Power Association’s Senior Director of Policy and Regulatory Affairs for Offshore, echoed this point of view, emailing CNBC to say that wave and tidal energy technologies “could help provide wind, solar and energy storage in America’s transition.” to complement a cleaner, safer and more affordable energy system. “
The reality on site shows how big the challenge will be. In 2020, fossil fuels – particularly natural gas and coal – remained the largest power generation source in the US, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Globally, a United States report published in February found that as of December 31 last year, only 75 parties to the Paris Agreement had updated their NDCs, which represent each country’s emissions reduction and adaptation goals.
This was only 40% of the total and together they account for only 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The interim report was described by UN Secretary General António Guterres as a “red warning for our planet”.
“It shows that governments are nowhere near the ambitions needed to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement,” he added.
Work to be done
While there is excitement about the role tidal and wave forces 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 last year Europe added only 260 kilowatts (kW) of tidal power capacity while installing 200 kW of wave power.
According to Ocean Energy Europe’s outlook for 2021, “up to 3.1 MW” of wave energy capacity could be used this year. For the rest of the world, OEE has forecast only 850 kW installations.
In order to put the above figures into context, the industry association WindEurope has forecast 19.5 gigawatts of new wind turbines for Europe in 2021.
With this in mind, what needs to be done to ensure that tidal current and wave energy technologies in the US are mature and become viable options?
Gregory Wetstone, President and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, told CNBC via email that Oregon State University, licensed by FERC to build and operate PacWave South, was “a great first step”.
“Wave and tidal technologies can provide clean, reliable electricity to meet our growing energy needs,” he added. “However, to bring it to an effective scale, it will take significant R&D investment to truly catalyze the maritime energy market.”
Bryson Robertson of Oregon State University made a number of points for his part. “We need time and reliable long-term federal funding to get more devices into the water,” he said.
“The inability of marine energy systems to test quickly, repeatedly, and inexpensively is holding the industry back,” he added, noting that the DOE’s investments in PacWave and other locations are “incredibly important.”
“We need to keep investing in basic and basic research in this area,” he added.
“We need breakthroughs to dramatically change economics and get large-scale deployments. Universities need to be supported to develop the talent and workforce to create these innovations.”