NEWPORT, Ore. — We bounced over four-foot swells outside Yaquina Bay, speeding along in Crackerjack, Capt. Jack Craven’s 43-foot charter. It was a calm early September day by the rambunctious standards of the Oregon coast, a stretch of the North American continent frequently battered by waves taller than your house – even if you live in a two-story. But even a quiet Pacific pulses with awesome power.
“If we could just grab a tiny piece of this energy,” I found myself thinking – an unoriginal thought if there ever was one. The idea of pinching off a little Pacific power has excited interest for years, and had in fact led to the development we were headed out to see: the Ocean Sentinel test pod and its temporary companion, the New Zealand born and Oregon schooled wave energy converter called WET-NZ.
A handful of scientists from the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center at Oregon State University, who put the Ocean Sentinel in the water, was aboard the Crackerjack, along with Justin Klure, an executive at Northwest Energy Innovations, the Oregon company that retooled the Kiwi WET-NZ into the second-generation, half-scale test model being put through its paces 2.5 miles northwest of Yaquina Head.
Reporters were along for the ride, as well, most of them getting their introduction to this new wave energy thing that suddenly was being talked about in Oregon in a big way – bigger, perhaps, than it really ought to at this point.
Earlier this month, The New York Times wrote a story about the planned upcoming deployment of an Ocean Power Technologies wave energy converting buoy off the coast near Reedsport, about 70 miles south of Newport. Shortly thereafter, The Oregonian, the Portland media heavyweight, editorialized breathlessly that because wave energy might prove to be a “runaway success at sea” like the “near-overnight sensation of wind farms,” state regulators needed to “get ahead of the wave power rush” that “could test Oregon’s capacity to plan and regulate ocean use to the satisfaction of multiple stakeholders and for the protection of fisheries and marine ecosystems.”
Whoa. Deep breath, Oregonian.
The wind power that became a “near-overnight sensation” had been operating commercially and at a large scale in California for decades before it busted out in Oregon. All renewable technologies are constantly evolving, but the basic format of wind power was long well-established before the boom of the past several years.
Wave? It’s commonly said that wave energy is in its infancy, but that might be overstating its development. Conception has occurred. The fetus is growing. Birth? We haven’t gotten there yet.
“We’ve got so much to learn,” Sean Moran, manager of the wave energy ocean test facilities for NNMREC, told me dockside before we headed out to sea. “There are tons of different designs that function very differently. We don’t really know what’s going to work and what isn’t – there’s a lot of work to do.”
Not that Moran isn’t excited – he’s in the field because he’s jazzed about the possibilities. But what was clear from the NNMREC and OSU scientists was that even more than hoping to help wave energy developers improve their wares, they’re interested in making sure wave energy unfolds in Oregon in a way that doesn’t screw the environment, commercial fishers and crabbers or those who use the ocean for recreation.