A Major New Facility in Oregon Could Help Transform the Prospects of Wave Energy

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  • In the years ahead, marine-based sources of energy could have an important role to play both in the U.S. and the rest of the world.
  • While there is excitement regarding the role tidal and wave power could play in the planet's energy mix, the current global footprint of these technologies is small.

With snow-capped mountains, shimmering lakes and vast swathes of forest, Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, does not lack for natural beauty.

In waters off its coastline, one project is attempting to harness nature's power by testing and analyzing wave energy converters, a technology which could have an important role to play in a transition to renewables.

Known as PacWave, the project is based around two locations: PacWave North, "a test-site for small-scale, prototype, and maritime market technologies," and PacWave South, which is under development and has received grants from the Department of Energy and the State of Oregon, among others.

In March, PacWave South — which will be located 7 miles offshore in federal waters measuring 70 to 75 meters deep — took a significant step forward when it was announced that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had granted Oregon State University (OSU) a license to "build and operate" a test facility at the site. 

According to OSU, PacWave South is "the first commercial-scale, utility grid-connected test site in the United States to obtain a FERC license and will be the first marine renewable energy research facility in federal waters off the Pacific Coast."

In a statement at the time, Burke Hales, who is the chief scientist for PacWave, described the news as a "huge moment for this project and for the industry as a whole."

Hales, who is also a professor at OSU's College of Earth, Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, added that the license was "the first … of its type to be issued in the United States."

Once up and running, PacWave South will be made up of four berths. In total, the development will have the capacity to test as many as 20 utility-scale wave energy converters, or WECs.

How though, do WECs work? According to Brussels-based trade association Ocean Energy Europe, these types of devices are able to "capture the physical movement of swells and waves and transform it into energy – usually electricity." At PacWave South, subsea cables will carry electricity from the WECs to a land-based site which will in turn send it to the grid.

According to the project's website, the maximum power output of PacWave South will amount to 20 megawatts (MW). The site is "pre-permitted," which in simple terms means WEC developers won't need to apply for permits or permission to deploy their technology there.

If all goes to plan, construction work could begin this summer with operations starting by 2023. Once built, PacWave South would bolster America's marine energy testing infrastructure, which already includes the U.S. Navy Wave Energy Test Site in Hawaii.

In a phone interview with CNBC last week, Hales sought to emphasize the importance of the U.S. having a test site such as PacWave South, as well as the task facing the sector.

"I would say that wave energy is … a couple to a few decades behind wind energy," he explained.

"And the real bottleneck in the ketchup is that there is … really nowhere for these devices to test, basically, anywhere other than a couple of sites in Europe: there's a site at Orkney, the EMEC site, (and) there's a site in the Bay of Biscay called BiMep."

"But really nothing, nothing like this, anywhere else in the world, and certainly nothing like this in the U.S.," he added, going on to explain how it was "critically important" for developers to have a full-scale testing ground.

Oceans of potential? 

The U.S. Department of Energy has described marine energy resources as having "the potential to contribute meaningfully to the U.S. and world energy supply."

Similarly, the International Energy Agency describes marine technologies as holding "great potential" but adds that extra policy support is required for research, design and development in order to "enable the cost reductions that come with the commissioning of larger commercial plants."

Looking to the future, marine-based sources of energy could have an important role to play in the U.S.  

"As we move to increasing penetrations of wind + solar + batteries, we need renewable resources that are available when the wind isn't blowing, at night-time, and during winter," Bryson Robertson, associate professor and director of the Pacific Marine Energy Center at Oregon State University, told CNBC via email.

"These are all attributes of marine energy," Robertson said, adding that they complemented other renewable energy resources. "We need to diversify our renewables," he explained, which would in turn ensure a robust, resilient, carbon free and distributed energy system.

Laura Morton, who is the American Clean Power Association's senior director of policy and regulatory affairs for offshore, echoed this viewpoint, telling CNBC via email that wave and tidal energy technologies "could help supplement wind, solar, and energy storage in transitioning America to a cleaner, safer, and more affordable energy system."

Tough targets

The progress of the PacWave project comes as governments around the world lay out targets to cut emissions and attempt to ramp up renewable energy installations.

The reality on the ground shows just how big a challenge this will be. In 2020, fossil fuels — in particular natural gas and coal — comfortably remained the biggest source of electricity generation in the U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration.  

Globally, a U.N. report published in February showed that as of Dec. 31 last year, only 75 parties involved in the Paris Agreement had updated their NDCs, which are individual countries' targets for cutting emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change.

This represented just 40% of the total number involved, and together they account for only 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The interim report was described as a "red alert for our planet" by UN Secretary General António Guterres.

"It shows governments are nowhere close to the level of ambition needed to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement," he added.

Work to be done

While there is excitement regarding the role tidal and wave power could play in the planet's energy mix, the current global footprint of these technologies is small.

Recent figures from Ocean Energy Europe show that only 260 kilowatts (kW) of tidal stream capacity was added in Europe last year, while 200 kW of wave energy was installed.

According to Ocean Energy Europe's outlook for 2021, "up to 3.1 MW" of wave energy capacity could be deployed this year. For the rest of the world, OEE has forecast just 850 kW of installations.

To put the above figures into context, industry body WindEurope has forecast 19.5 gigawatts of new wind installations for Europe in 2021.

With the above in mind, what needs to be done to ensure tidal stream and wave energy technologies mature and become viable options in the U.S.?

Gregory Wetstone, the president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, told CNBC via email that Oregon State University receiving a license from the FERC to build and operate PacWave South was "a great first step."

"Wave and tidal technologies can provide clean, reliable electricity to help meet our growing energy demands," he added, "but to bring them to an impactful scale, meaningful R&D investments are needed to truly catalyze the marine energy market."

For his part, Oregon State University's Bryson Robertson made a number of points. "We need time and reliable long-term federal financial support to get more devices in the water," he said.

"The lack of ability for marine energy systems to quickly, repeatedly and cost effectively test is holding the industry back," he added, noting that investments from the DOE in PacWave and other sites were "incredibly important."

"We need to continue to invest in fundamental and foundation research in this arena," he went on to add.

"We need breakthroughs to significantly change the economics to see large scale deployments — universities need to be supported to develop the talent and workforce to create these innovations."

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