Ocean Offers Hope for Green Energy
Sep 25, 2008 - The Philadelphia Inquirer
Five miles off the southern tip of Long Beach Island,
an oversize yellow buoy floats alone, purposefully
mounting the waves and occasionally phoning home.
After two years it has proven itself, at least to
its inventors, as a workable design for what may well
be the biggest technological quest of the 21st century:
With every significant bob of the buoy, pistons slide
up and down inside a cylinder, generating electricity.
Not much, to be sure. New Jersey waves are small
and variable compared to the powerhouses that approach
the West Coast.
But the test buoy makes enough power to run its onboard
computer and other systems, and to send periodic progress
reports to its manufacturer, Ocean Power Technologies
of Pennington, N.J.
OPT is headquartered near the Princeton home of co-founder
George W. Taylor, a 74-year-old engineer who learned
the power of waves as a young surfer growing up in
Taylor considers his Jersey buoy a showcase of the
potential for wave "farms" _ clusters of buoys moored
off the more vigorous coasts of the world, pumping
electricity ashore via underwater cables.
Indeed, ocean energy is "probably the last of the
large natural resources not yet investigated for producing
electricity in the United States," according to a
report from the nonprofit Electric Power Research
While the technology is still in its infancy, the
report predicts ocean energy could be among the most
environmentally benign generation methods yet developed.
The vast bulk of the world's energy, of course, is
produced using coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear or
hydroelectric power, each of which poses serious environmental
The least harmful sources are solar, wind, geothermal
and what can be called "hydrokinetic" _ electricity
generated from waves or directly from the flow of
water in ocean currents, tides or inland waterways.
Roger Bedard, the institute's ocean energy expert,
says the potential for getting power from waves and
tides is "significant."
It could generate the equivalent of 10 percent of
the nation's current power needs, says Bedard, who
maintains this is no pie-in-the-sky figure but one
that already accounts for inefficiencies and practicalities.
Europe is far ahead of the United States, although
proposals here have been mounting.
In 2005 and 2006 combined, the Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission issued just four preliminary permits for
hydrokinetic projects. That number rose to 33 in 2007,
and 77 so far this year.
The three-year permits are intended to allow companies
to do needed studies and planning. But so many companies
have used them to, in effect, reserve vast swaths
of ocean for themselves that the agency insisted on
more project specifics and began to scrutinize them
more strictly, spokeswoman Celeste Miller says.
Most of the permits have been for projects harnessing
river flows _ chiefly along the Mississippi and several
Alaskan waterways. On the East Coast, one company
has been experimenting with turbines off Manhattan.
But Bedard and others say ocean waves hold the most
promise. One reason is that they can generate electricity
where it's needed most. About half the world population
lives within 50 miles of coastline.
Waves also are more dense than wind _ compare sticking
your arm out the window of a speeding car to putting
it into the water beside a speedboat _ so they can
generate electricity more efficiently. And unlike
offshore windmills, wave buoys have a low profile,
hardly visible from shore.
Designs under development _ with vivid names such
as Wave Dragon, Anaconda and Oceanlinx _ range from
undulating, snakelike contraptions to massive, in-water
ramps that waves climb before falling into a reservoir,
generating power in the process.
OPT's PowerBuoy requires waves at least 4 feet high,
and Taylor says the design has proven its mettle up
to wave heights of about 22 feet. Above that, it automatically
shuts down and rides out the storm.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's only commercial
license for any hydrokinetic project so far has gone
to a Canadian company whose plans to install buoys
off Washington state have stalled.
Bedard says OPT is leading the field, and he expects
it will build the nation's first commercial-scale
That would be just off the small Oregon town of Reedsport.
There, as all along the coast, waves whipped up by
the prevailing west-to-east winds _ and not slowed
by a shallow continental shelf close to shore _ arrive
after crossing the Pacific with roughly triple the
wave energy of the East Coast, Bedard says.
The OPT buoy is designed to work in about 150 feet
of water, where waves retain about 90 percent of their
energy. By depths of 50 feet, Taylor says, the sea
bed has absorbed most of it.
The company hopes to moor 10 buoys off Reedsport,
each capable of generating power equivalent to the
amount used by 150 homes.
If final approval comes through, the first buoy would
go into the water next year, Taylor says. The "smart
parts" _ the controls _ would be built in New Jersey,
the steel structure in Oregon.
Reedsport mayor Keith Tymchuk is a supporter. "The
time has come for us to test this method of generating
what seems to be very green electricity," he says.
Many say the project will provide jobs. But opposition
has come from fishermen and watermen who harvest the
region's famed Dungeness crabs and fear competition
for the ocean.
Other concerns about wave power include disturbance
of the seabed, altered erosion patterns onshore, fish
or birds being struck by moving parts, and whales
getting tangled in submerged cables.
Still, "you don't have to put in the whole Hoover
Dam all at once," Bedard says. Install a few buoys
and, if the impact is acceptable, add more.
It was during the first oil crunch, in the mid-1970s,
that Taylor began to ponder how to harness the power
With experience as an electrical engineer at RCA's
Sarnoff research lab in Princeton and as founder of
a company that developed flat liquid crystal displays
for digital watches and instruments, Taylor started
OPT with a colleague in 1984. Their first buoy was
launched off New Jersey in 1997.
There was little interest in renewables on Wall Street,
and OPT got listed on the London stock exchange in
2003. In 2007, they were listed in Nasdaq. The company,
which now has 50 employees, raised more than $130
million from the two initial public stock offerings.
It has a $1.7 million Navy contract to use a buoy
to power an underwater acoustic detection system on
the edge of the continental shelf off New Jersey.
Commercial buoys are set to be launched within weeks
in Hawaii and Spain, and various other projects are
in the works around the world.
Midway through his 70s, Taylor says he finds himself
"driven by my age." The field is too exciting to retire.
He says he can now generate electricity for roughly
5 to 15 cents per kilowatt hour _ more than the 4
to 7 cents for natural gas and coal estimated by the
International Energy Agency, but closing.
"We believe we're going to be the lowest of the
renewables," Taylor says, "probably even lower than
fossil fuels, the way prices are going."