PacWave, OSU’s Wave Energy Testing Facility, has been federally approved

Researchers push out a measurement buoy onto the ocean currents. These buoys measure weather variables such as wave height that are considered in wave energy research facilities.  

Trevor Horn, News Contributor

After an almost 10-year approval process, the estimated $82 million wave energy research facility, PacWave, has been licensed and approved to operate seven miles southwest off the coast of Newport, Ore.

PacWave is the first facility of its kind on the continental Americas. Although the United States Navy has a wave energy facility in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, Burke Hales, the chief scientist at PacWave, said the new facility will be “more capable, more flexible, and [has] more capacity for power production” compared to their partners at the U.S Navy Wave Energy Test Site.

Although the field of wave energy is growing, Oregon State University has a tenured history with the concept. 

Now at Baylor University, Annette Von Jouanne “did some of the most important, early work in wave energy [in the early 2000s] that I’m aware of,” Hales said.

PacWave itself will not generate electricity; it will only provide the means for technology developers to implement their devices.

The facility itself consists of two main pieces: the shore-side facility that will monitor the devices in the sea, seven miles of cables planted under the seafloor that connect the wave energy devices to the shore facility and eventually the rest of the power grid. Each one of the cables can transport five megawatts of electrical power from the devices to the shore.

Because PacWave went through a 10-year long approval process that included all likely types of wave energy converters, the designers of new wave energy devices “don’t have to go through their own 10-year process,” Hales said. “PacWave itself does not build wave energy converters—we just provide the proving ground for those that do. We’re building the arena (test facility), but we are not competitors (WEC Energy Group developers) ourselves.”

The director of the Pacific Marine Energy Center, Bryson Robertson, has been working closely with the PacWave team.

“Dr. Hales is responsible [for making] sure the PacWave infrastructure gets built, I’m responsible for making sure we’re engaged with industry and we’re leading [research and development] and we’re moving the sector forward,” Robertson said.

“It’s hard to keep momentum when it’s taking 10 years to get permitting done [that is only a part of the full facility]–but definitely across the U.S., companies are interested, companies are looking at [PacWave], [and] companies are getting organized for future deployments,” Robertson said.

Companies like the Corvallis-based C-Power, Portland-based Aquaharmonics, Seattle-based Oscilla Power and California-based CalWave have been in contact with PacWave, and “they’re tracking [PacWave] very closely,” according to Robertson.

“There is no doubt that, in the academic setting, there is no better place to come and work on marine energy than Oregon State and the Pacific Marine Energy Center,” Robertson said.

Gathering interest from the private sector is undoubtedly a cornerstone of PacWave’s future, but Hales believes that since wave energy as a technological field is about 20 years behind wind energy, the sector will initially be dependent on subsidies from the Federal Department of Energy.

“We have this project that we estimated [would] cost $80 million to build and then operate for a couple of years, and we have about $70 [million] of that allocated. What we’re finding out in the age of COVID-19, the challenges of getting ships in place and increases in the cost of raw materials… it may take even more than the $70 million to construct,” Hales said. “We’re working hard on trying to very precisely define [the budget] so we know how much additional funds we need to go after.”

Hales has estimated that PacWave will cost roughly $4.5 million a year to operate. 

“We have $73 [million] in-hand, and we think the overall project is about $82 [million],” Hales said.

“Time and money are interchangeable pieces here. If we had a huge amount of money at our disposal, … we could make the operations and construction go faster, so it’s kind of hard when you’ve got funding uncertainty, [and] it’s kind of hard to have schedule certainty,” Hales said. “Our hope is that we have cables installed by the summer of 2023, and then we essentially do the conditioning and testing over the winter of 2023 to 2024. Then the first devices [will] likely come in the spring of 2024.”

Hales noted that the facility could theoretically be able to house developer devices by the winter of 2023 to 2024, but developers wouldn’t want to get their devices in place while having to battle the winter storms in the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon coast.

Ali Trueworthy, a student working on her masters of arts in Environmental Arts and Humanities and a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering, said she believes

in PacWave.

“Wave energy is really exciting in that I see it as a technology that probably won’t ever be huge and sweeping and just off of every coastline, but something that can have different, unique wave energy devices that embed themselves into communities as needed,” Trueworthy said.

As we barrel towards a renewable energy future, Hales believes that we must have a “diversified portfolio” of green energies.

“Wave Energy, in the overall green energy portfolio, might be able to supply 10% of global electricity demand,” Hales cited from a study conducted several years ago. 

Although 10% seems like a small number, it’s a consistent number. Wind turbines can’t generate electricity if there is no wind, and solar panels won’t produce any juice if the sun is covered. Waves, even on windless days, are ever-present, especially off the Oregon coast which is home to some of the choppiest waters in the world –precisely why PacWave is located where it is.

One of the challenges of wave energy is that since it is a new field, it doesn’t have a form in the zeitgeist. Everyone knows what a wind turbine, a hydroelectric dam or a solar panel looks like; at this point in time, each wave energy device looks different and will fundamentally work differently than other devices.

Trueworthy sees this as one of the field’s strengths.

“Different places and different objectives may need different technologies. That’s one of the reasons why I think PacWave is super cool,” Trueworthy said.

Robertson echoed the same sentiment, saying “There’s a wide array of technologies, and I think they’re all going to have different niches.”