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Oregon Plays Host to Nation’s First Wave-Power Farm

The search for clean, renewable energy is turning toward the ocean, but not without some waves of skepticism.

Construction has begun on what would be the nation's first commercial wave-energy farm, said Sean O'Neill, president of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition, a Maryland-based trade association that promotes marine energy. It is planned to supply energy to about 400 homes.

"On a national perspective, it's great news. They're making tremendous progress," he said.

Wave power draws from the energy of ocean surface waves, according to Phil Pellegrino, spokesman for New Jersey-based developer Ocean Power Technologies, which is developing the project.

A float on the buoy rises and falls with the waves, driving a plunger up and down, he explained. The plunger is connected to a hydraulic pump that converts the vertical movement into rotary motion, driving an electrical generator. Electricity produced is sent to shore over a submerged cable, he said.

The first buoy will measure 150 feet tall by 40 feet wide, weigh 200 tons, and cost $4 million, Pellegrino said.

Nine more buoys are planned to deploy at a site in Reedsport, Ore., by 2012, at a total cost of $60 million, he said.

Some don't believe wave energy can work, said Onno Husing, director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association.

"A lot of people who are very experienced with the ocean harbor a lot of doubt that anyone can in a cost-effective way put buoys in the water, harvest the energy, and not have them end up on the beach," he said.

The world's first commercial wave farm opened in 2008 off the coast of Portugal, at the Agucadoura Wave Park, Husing said. It ran into financial difficulties last year and was suspended indefinitely, according to a statement from Pelamis Wave Power of Scotland, part-owner of the project.

A wave-power device from another company, Finavera Renewables of Canada, sank off Oregon's coast two years ago, Pellegrino said.

Other projects are under development in Spain, Scotland, Western Australia, and off the coast of Cornwall, England, he said.

Capturing that power is a challenge. The size of waves can fluctuate widely.

"If they're too big they overwhelm the equipment and can damage it," Pellegrino said. "If they're too small, it's not going to be cost-effective."

There's also controversy about impact on the marine environment. Oregon fishers and crabbers worry the project will hurt their livelihoods.

"What wave energy will do for the first time is render an area of the ocean closed off. There will be no-fish zones," said Nick Furman, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. Crabbers must keep their pots away from underwater transmission lines, Furman said.

Ocean Power Technologies, the state of Oregon, conservation groups, coastal residents and fishers and crabbers have been working for more than three years to reach an agreement on how the ocean will be shared, said Paul Klarin, marine affairs coordinator for the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.

The Oregon project is being funded by Ocean Power, the U.S. Department of Energy, Oregon tax credits and money from the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative, which has the right to purchase some of the power for local customers, according to Democratic Gov. Ted. Kulongoski's office.

Because the technology is still being developed, wave power costs five or six times as much as wind power, said Marianne Boust, senior analyst for Emerging Energy Research, an alternative energy advisory firm in Cambridge, Mass.

Boust said she believes that wave power eventually will be competitive with other alternative power sources, because waves are more predictable than either wind or sun.

Ocean Power Technologies is also working on testing wave power technology in a program with the U.S. Navy. This month, the company announced the successful deployment of one of its buoys at the Marine Corps Base at Kaneohe Bay on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, as part of that program.

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