The Wave of the Future? Harnessing the Oceans' Energy

waveThe oceans of the World are home to countless species of marine life. Indeed, it was in the oceans that life first took hold on the Earth. With marine life forming the basis of our food chain, the oceans continue to support life as we know it today. Now, as global warming threatens to extinguish much of that life, humanity is looking back to the oceans for part of the solution.

Today half the World's population, more than 3 billion people, live within 200 kilometres of coast lines. The energy requirements of these populations grow as they do. The Center For Climate Systems Research estimates that by 2025, populations living within 60 miles of coast lines will increase by 35% from 1995 levels.  So, it makes sense that we would attempt to harness the clean, renewable and seemingly inexhaustible energy that the oceans have to offer. Wave energy, after all, has the highest energy density of any renewable resource, almost 1000 times greater than wind.

In Makah Bay, on the western coast of the U.S., a Canadian company of Irish origin, Finavera, is pioneering the field of commercial wave energy production. The wave power project in Northwest Washington State is one of the most advanced in the U.S. It involves anchoring 4,250 kilowatt Aquabouys 1.9 miles offshore. Inside each Aquabouy a two-stroke hose pump converts the vertical component of the oceans kinetic wave energy into pressurized sea water. The pressurized sea water is then used to drive an electrical generator inside the Aquabouy. Collectively the Aquabouys form a "wave park" which collects electrical energy at a central point before transferring it onshore via a steel cable.

aquabouyThe Aquabouys will feed energy into the local Clallum county power grid through 4 miles of underwater cable. The project will generate enough energy to supply about 150 homes in the city of Neah Bay each year. 150 homes may not seem like a lot in the grand scheme of things. However, the company points out that this is intended only as a wave energy pilot project. Should it be successful, the project certainly seems to have huge potential when it comes on line around 2010. Finavera recently signed the first commercial power purchase agreement with a utility in the U.S. for a 2 megawatt wave power project in California. The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that the Washington, Oregon and California coast lines combined have the potential to generate between 250 and 500 terawatt-hours each year. The entire U.S. uses roughly 4,000 terawatt-hours of electricity every year.

Finavera deployed its first prototype Aquabouy (known as Aquabouy 2.0) off the Oregon coast in September 2007. The 75 foot tall Aquabouy sank in 115 feet of water one month later, just a day before it was scheduled to be retrieved. However, the exercise was a success in the company's opinion, as they were able to verify their mathematical and power output models using the information gathered. Work is now well under way to develop Aquabouy 3.0 that will be used in the Makah Bay project. Unlike Aquabouy 2.0, which was basically metal covered in rubber, the company intends to use advanced composite materials to make its successor lighter and stronger.    

The marine area in which the project is located falls within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and the Flattery Rocks National Wildlife Refuge. The project was given conditional approval to move ahead on December 21 2007 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The FERC announcement stated that the project would be stopped if it was found to have any adverse environmental impact. In May 2008 the Washington State Department of Ecology filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals arguing that FERC did not have authority to grant a conditional licence without consulting state environmental authorities.

The Olympic Peninsula is one of only 14 marine wildlife sanctuaries in the U.S. It is visited by 29 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises. Otters, seals and sea lions make their home there and it contains some of the largest colonies of seabirds in the continental United States. With FERC seeming to sideline the traditional procedures in granting its conditional approval to Finavera's wave power project, you might ask if it is unwarranted to assume that a renewable technology would be harmless to the environment. Global warming presents us with a unique challenge and an awesome responsibility. The challenge is to convert our energy production to 100% sustainable and renewable sources before the damage caused by global warming is irreversible; the responsibility is to do so without harming our environment further.



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  • Posted on Aug. 3, 2008. Listed in:

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