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Energy from Oceans and Rivers to Power the U.S. Grid

Sep 08, 2010 - STATE DEPARTMENT RELEASE/ContentWorks

There was the sun and the wind -- and now comes the power of water. If the promise of this fledgling energy technology holds true, it could eventually be as affordable and viable as fossil fuel and nuclear power.

In late 2010, Ocean Power Technologies (OPT) expects to become the first ocean wave-energy company to produce power for the U.S. electric grid. If things go as planned, the New Jersey-based corporation would also become the world's first to continuously produce wave-generated power for public consumption.

"We really believe we have an incredible source of energy, and a source that is much more concentrated than, for example, wind energy," said George Taylor, OPT's founder and executive chairman. "We're late out of the starting block, but we expect in three years to be a very important part of the renewables game."

Entrepreneurs who are exploring how to best harness energy from waves, tides and currents in oceans and rivers -- so-called hydrokinetic power -- are starting small.

Hydro Green Power, which today claims the nation's only federally licensed hydrokinetic site in the Mississippi River, began to sell power to the Minnesota grid in August 2009. The Texas-based company specializes in capturing river currents downstream from existing locks and dams where the water flows fast.

The company's turbines near an existing hydroelectric dam owned by the Minnesota town of Hastings produces power for about 70 homes, based on average household use. Hydro Green Power plans a number of projects for the Midwestern and eastern United States that one day could serve thousands of customers.

OPT's first commercial project in Hawaii, made in collaboration with the U.S. Navy, initially will produce enough power to serve about 40 homes when it comes online in a few months. Next, the company plans to open a wave-energy generating station off the coast of Oregon in 2012 that will power 1,500 homes.

OPT reached what's known as a stakeholder agreement with citizen groups and state and federal agencies earlier this month, paving the way for an official permit to operate the wave-energy station. The company expects the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that regulates U.S. power producers, to issue a full license for its first Oregon project within a year.

The U.S. government so far has issued about 140 preliminary permits (PDF, 3.1MB) for hydrokinetic projects around the country.

Traditional hydropower plants, which use dams to generate electricity, today account for about 10 percent of the nation's power supply. With wave, current and tidal energy plants coming online in the years ahead, water power eventually could wean a significant number of American homes and businesses off fossil-generated power that contributes to climate change, officials say.


Unlike wind, which comes and goes, waves are constant and predictable, Taylor said. The floating buoys used to capture wave power have most of their equipment below the surface of the water where it cannot be seen. That tends to make them less controversial than wind turbines that obscure views, he said.

Another advantage, he said, is that power from ocean waves is captured near coasts where about half the world's population lives.

After the first large-scale project in Oregon goes online two years from now, OPT plans to get a second, bigger station up and running along the same coast in 2013. The company has received two grants worth a total of $3.5 million from the U.S. Energy Department to develop its wave-power system.

Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest, is known for its green policies, and the state worked closely with OPT to get the first power proposal reviewed by involved entities in the area and to keep the project on track. The prospect of getting new jobs in the area was part of the attraction.

"The manufacture of the first buoy has already created dozens of green-energy jobs in Oregon, and when the 10-buoy wave power project is built, a whole new industry will be created to benefit our coastal communities," Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski said in a recent statement. "This is an exciting time for our state."

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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Updated: 2003/07/28