In Short

Portland State professor and team to get millions for wave energy testing off Oregon coast

By: - February 1, 2022 4:25 pm

Waves off the coast by Newport, Oregon. Eight research teams will get millions in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to test energy generation from wave power off of the Oregon coast. (Bonnie Moreland/Flickr)

The U.S. Department of Energy is putting $25 million into eight projects from teams across the country, including one in Oregon, that could advance technology to turn ocean waves into electricity. 

They’ll be the first round of projects tested at PacWave, a new wave-energy test facility off the coast of Newport that was developed by the federal Energy Department, the state of Oregon and Oregon State University. 

Among those sharing in the $25 million are researchers at six companies and two universities, including Portland State University engineering professor Jonathan Bird.

Bird will team up with engineer Bertrand Dechant and Alex Hagmüller, president of Portland wave energy startup AquaHarmonics. They’ve received $4.5 million to develop buoys that can sit atop and move with waves, gathering their momentum and converting the energy into a higher speed motion that gets sent through undersea cables to an onshore or offshore transmission center and then off to a local electrical grid.

“The sea has a lot of energy but the motion is very slow,” Bird said.

The buoys work as a wave energy converter, amplifying the speed of the wave energy with magnetic gears and springs. 

“In order to cost effectively generate electricity from the sea you need to come up with a way to convert the low speed motion the sea makes into a higher speed, bigger motion,” Bird said.

A handful of European companies are testing similar buoys, but Bird said they suffer a fatal design error. They use mechanical or hydraulic springs, which could need maintenance or break under massive wave pressure and storms.

With magnetic gears and springs, the buoys should be able to withstand inclement weather and not need maintenance, Bird said.

“You design it like a satellite – put it out there and hope it keeps operating,” he said. 

The weather off the Oregon coast will be the biggest challenge to wave energy generating projects, according to Burke Hales, chief scientist at PacWave.

“It won’t be extracting or transmitting energy from the waves,” he said, “It will be the Oregon coast in the winter time.” 

The deep ocean waves off the coast near Newport can be brutal. 

“We always say, never put anything in the ocean that you really want back,” Hales said. He also said the infrastructure needs to be simple and be able to function around the clock without interference.

“The ocean does not like complicated,” he said. 

The future of wave energy for electricity is still distant, according Hales, and it is still not cost competitive with solar or wind power.

But about 40% of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a coast, according to the United Nations. This is what Bird thinks about when he thinks about his buoys and the future of wave energy.

“If we could somehow harness it, it could be very beneficial to a large population,” he said. 

Construction on the PacWave testing facility began in June 2021, and will be completed by 2023. The projects receiving the federal funding will be tested at PacWave in 2024.

Hales said it could be 30 years before wave energy becomes a viable source of energy in Oregon, but each year they wait to do the research makes that an even more distant reality.

“We’re 20 years behind wind,” Hales said of wave energy technology, “and we think the testing bottleneck is the reason for that.”

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.