Sea Power

OSU electrical engineers Annette von Jouanne and Alan Wallace and their students are developing innovative wave energy devices. Their plan to create a wave energy research park near Reedsport, Oregon, brings hope to a community hit hard by economic decline.

Annette von Jouanne and Alan Wallace:
Water as Destiny

By Lee Anna Sherman

There’s something serendipitous, almost poetic, about von Jouanne’s work in wave energy…Wallace, like von Jouanne, was the child of an engineer and grew up taking apart household appliances. Although his hometown of Sheffield is landlocked, Wallace notes that “no place in England is very far from the sea.”

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The mill is silent now, and still. When International Paper succumbed to the slump in logging a few years ago and shut the doors on a plant that had once employed 650 in Gardiner and neighboring Reedsport, commerce in the coastal Oregon communities took a body blow.

The pain of the mill closure was compounded by catches of coho salmon that had been dwindling for a decade. As loggers knocked the mud off their caulk boots for the last time and fishermen let their commercial licenses lapse, families drifted away. Schools lost students. Today, Reedsport’s many boarded-up storefronts signal a community in distress.

The town sits back from the open ocean, snug against the sheltering hills of the Coast Range and wrapped inside the arc of sand that forms Winchester Bay. But out beyond the bay, past the bar, churns the constant, unceasing movement of what could someday stanch the decline of this place: Pacific Ocean waves. That’s because a team of Oregon State University researchers has been inventing devices for creating electricity — clean, renewable, low-impact energy — from the motion of the ocean. And they’ve zeroed in on Reedsport as the “sweet spot” for testing and demonstrating new technologies — in part because the old mill’s power substation, now sitting idle, could quickly be reengaged and once again buzz with electricity. Just a tiny fraction of the energy contained in the Earth’s seas — their currents, tides, waves, and heat — could power the entire planet. Tom Tymchuk is awe-struck by the statistic. “If you could harness even 1 percent of ocean energy, you could light up the world,” says the Central Lincoln Public Utility District board member, struggling to take in the enormity of that idea. “Light up the world!”

Compared to wind — the current frontrunner in renewables — waves are a lot more efficient. That’s because of what OSU electrical engineer Annette von Jouanne calls “energy density.” “Water is about 1,000 times more dense than air,” she points out. “That means you can extract more power from a smaller volume, which in turn means lower cost.” Besides, waves roll in with a lot more regularity than wind blows. Energy is available from waves upward of 80 percent of the time, compared to 45 percent or less from wind, leading to more efficient scheduling for other energy sources on the grid.

More than 20 agencies, including the Oregon and U.S. departments of energy, are backing OSU’s initiative to launch a U.S. Ocean Wave Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Center to create and test wave-power technologies. With members of Oregon’s congressional delegation strongly behind the initiative, it’s quite possible that the roar of the surf and the tang of salt spray could someday replace the kthunk-kthunk of the mill and the acrid smell of pulp as the sounds and smells of prosperity in Reedsport and other sagging economies up and down the coast.

Surviving the Tempest

Coastal Views

Four residents of Oregon’s shore — a fisherman, a former mayor, a teacher and a doctor — weigh in on wave energy.

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The notion of extracting energy from waves is not new. When von Jouanne and her colleague, OSU electrical engineering professor Alan Wallace, began exploring the potential of wave power, their search for prior scientific writings and inventions took them into records two centuries old. As they pored over thousands of patents for turning wave energy into electricity, they pinpointed the big flaw in those earlier designs: too many moving parts. In an environment as tempestuous as the sea, moving parts require frequent maintenance and are vulnerable to breakdowns.

“To capture energy from waves, the device must be survivable, reliable, and maintainable,” says von Jouanne, a principal investigator in OSU’s wave energy research project. “In the past, there have been some failures because of the survivability issue.”

Prevailing technologies generate power by compression of a liquid (such as water) or a gas (such as air). Pumps and pistons, valves and filters, hoses and tubes, fittings and couplings and all sorts of switches, gauges, meters and sensors go into operating these systems. In contrast, with $270,000 from the National Science Foundation and a total of $60,000 in proof-of-concept grants from Oregon Sea Grant at OSU, von Jouanne and Wallace are developing technologies that work with just a handful of basic components, including an electric coil, a buoy and a magnetic shaft secured by a steel cable.

One of the OSU devices on the drawing board — which the engineers describe as a “permanent magnet linear generator” — works like this: A spiral of copper wire is secured inside a 12- by 15-foot long buoy made of an impervious composite of plastic and fiberglass. The coil surrounds a magnetic shaft, which is stationary and tethered to the ocean floor by a steel cable. As the buoy rises and falls on the waves, the coil moves up and down relative to the shaft, inducing voltage as it passes through the magnetic field. A power take-off cable carries the resulting electric current about 100 feet down to the seafloor where another cable takes the power generated by many buoys to an onshore substation.

“I can promise you one thing. Whatever we build out there for wave-action generation is gonna have to be one tough dude.”
Terry Thompson

One buoy is projected to generate 100 kilowatts of power, on average. A network of about 500 such buoys could power downtown Portland. Moreover, wave parks could address the state’s energy imbalance. West of the Cascades, Oregon consumes about 1,000 megawatts more than it generates. By tapping about 5 percent of the coastline, wave energy could make up the difference, and no new transmission lines would be needed.

The engineers’ goal is to produce a device that is lean and streamlined, designed to withstand gale-force winds, monster storms and the vagaries of sea life, from rafts of floating bull kelp to colonies of seals looking for a place to haul out. The engineers are now working on their fourth and fifth prototypes. They call their simplified approach to energy conversion “direct drive.” The fishermen just call it common sense. As one lifelong Oregon fisherman, Terry Thompson, puts it, “There’s a rule of working in the ocean that fishermen use that goes, ‘Keep it simple, stupid.'”

Wallace and von Jouanne agree. “Simplicity is the essence of it,” Wallace says. However, embedded in their design is a great deal of engineered precision. The magnetic shafts are made of a steel alloy that creates an exceptionally strong force field. The highly conductive “air-gap” coils are made of solid copper instead of the more common combination of copper and steel used in generator armatures. Thus, the conversion of mechanical motion (waves) into electrical energy can take place with great efficiency and efficacy.

The engineers develop their prototypes in OSU’s Motor Systems Resource Facility, the highest-power motor and drives testing lab at any U.S. university, and test them across campus in the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, which boasts a 342-foot flume. But it will be in Reedsport that the wave-energy buoys meet their real test: the Pacific Ocean.

Of all the waves washing across the planet, Oregon’s are optimal for extracting energy, according to a study by the Palo Alto, California-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). That’s because on the West Coast, the trade winds blow strong and steady, and the seafloor is a long, gentle slope, a configuration that lends itself to good wave action. And then there’s the old mill just north of Reedsport. In addition to its 50-megawatt electrical substation, it has an outflow pipe stretching 3,000 feet into the ocean — a ready-made conduit for the subsea power cable bringing electricity back to shore.

Von Jouanne and Wallace have been working closely with Justin Klure of the Oregon Department of Energy to promote the Reedsport/Gardiner area as an optimal location for the nation’s first commercial wave park. Several developers have stepped forward with the first planned phases in the 20- to 30-megawatt range. Manufacturing and fabrication would be performed locally, meaning job opportunities for coastal Oregonians. At about one to three miles offshore, the park will be invisible from the beach, thus preserving views, but close enough to make anchoring and transmission feasible.

Activists for Wave Action

Powering the Planet

OSU is not alone in ocean-energy R&D. Projects are underway around the world, led by Europe and backed by strong government support and funding. Great Britain is several years ahead of the U.S. on wave research, with a test facility — the European Marine Energy Center — generating power on an experimental basis on Orkney Island off Scotland, using a device called Pelamis (Greek for “wave snake”). A Swedish team has developed a related system, one that drives turbines with pumps and high-pressure jets of water. A device designed by Danish experts has been dubbed the “Wave Dragon.” Not to be outdone in dramatic nomenclature, the Japanese call their model the “Mighty Whale.”

Tapping the vast energy massing off Reedsport’s shores has become the dream of local leaders who have joined forces with the engineers to revolutionize power generation in the Northwest. Tom Tymchuk is one of the most avid. At 77, this former Reedsport mayor, one-time logger and retired storekeeper is right at the heart of this local movement to rethink nature’s bounty and retool for a new millennium. “Since the proposed site was in our district,” says Tymchuk, “I thought I’d better jump aboard and see where we can go with this.”

The minute he heard about the wave project, Tymchuk encouraged his fellow utility board members to kick in $20,000 of seed money for the EPRI study. Then there’s the younger Tymchuk, Keith, a schoolteacher who earned his master’s at OSU and holds the post of Port of Umpqua president. Ever since getting wind of OSU’s idea, he has been bumping the limits of his cell-phone contract, piling up minutes in conversations with state and national officeholders to promote the project.

Physician Ron Vail recently had the sad task, along with other members of the school board, of closing the middle school after enrollments plunged. He was “blown away” when he first heard about wave energy, which he sees not only as a way to bring family-wage jobs back to Reedsport but, in the bigger picture, as an “engine” to power hydrogen fuel production for America’s future. And there’s PUD executive Matt Boshaw, a self-confessed “electricity geek” who is “jazzed” about the immediate practicality of wave power for beefing up the electricity grid for coastal Oregon.

The enthusiasm of these hardcore Reedsportians doesn’t mean, however, that there’s no skepticism among local stakeholders. Oregon’s crab fleet has broken harvest records in recent years and plies the same ocean real estate that OSU’s engineers are eyeing for “wave parks.” Crabbers are nursing some worries. They are intensely interested in making sure that an upturn in energy resources doesn’t cause a downturn in crab harvest. But for now they’re backing the project, at least in principle. As third-generation crab fisherman Scott Hartzell puts it, “Clean, renewable energy — how can you argue with that?”

Going from lab to open ocean is where the researchers will need to draw on the experience of Hartzell and other fishermen who’ve spent a lifetime reading waves and reacting to them, getting to know them in all their ferocity and variability from the deck of a trawler. As OSU sociology professor Flaxen Conway notes, “When you start talking about understanding the sheer power of the ocean — the winds, the currents — fishermen live out there. So when researchers say, ‘We’ve used a model to test this device, and we know how waves work,’ the fishermen will look at them and say, “I’ll tell you how waves work.'”

OSU’s engineers are listening. Conway co-directs the Port Liaison Project for Oregon Sea Grant Extension, which links von Jouanne and Wallace with a pool of “industry cooperators” — expert fishermen who get paid to bring their practical knowledge to the program. Terry Thompson is one. He says fishermen are essential for making the leap from lab to a “real-world scenario” in the ocean. “Man-oh-man,” he says, “it’s a nasty, hard environment to work in.”

A world-class runner at the University of Missouri and then at OSU, Thompson gave up a berth on the1968 Olympic track team to, quite simply, “go fishin’.” Although he has retired from commercial fishing, he is a Lincoln County commissioner and remains right in the thick of coastal commerce and politics. A couple of years ago, he donated his half-million-dollar trawler to the university for ocean research — research that he thinks is sorely needed to better inform environmental policies and fisheries management. OSU’s wave energy project is another of his burning interests. The idea of grabbing onto the power of the ocean and putting it to practical use has intrigued him for decades.


See and hear OSU engineers and their partners discuss wave energy. (Videos and animation courtesy of Oregon Sea Grant Communications)

OSU professors Annette von Jouanne and Alan Wallace: We need a lot of energy to power the world (0:37)

OSU professor Annette von Jouanne: Inside the permanent magnet linear generator (0:31)

OSU graduate students Emmanuel Agamloh and Ken Rhinefrank and professor Annette von Jouanne: Surviving Pacific Ocean storms (0:58)

Roger Bedard, Electric Power Research Institute: Oregon at the top of the list (0:33)

OSU graduate student Tony Schacher: Local impacts — welders, fabricators and boats (0:30)

OSU professor Flaxen Conway: Community involvement — the Port Liaison Project (1:29)

“When you sit out in the ocean, you get slammed by big waves every day,” Thompson says, leaning back in his Newport office in a pair of gently worn Wranglers and tooled-leather cowboy boots. “You go, ‘God, dang, that wave hit me so hard! How can I get the power out of it? How can I turn that wave, which is beatin’ the tar out of me, into something positive?'”

That’s why he got excited in the spring of 2005 when OSU convened the first of several public meetings to introduce local people to wave energy and get their input. More than 100 community members jammed into a cramped conference room to listen. The fishermen put all kinds of concerns on the table: optimal depth, strongest tethers, best anchors, conflicts with river outflow, impact of magnetic fields on sea life and migration patterns, water temperature changes, durability in a 20- or 30-foot swell.

“I can promise you one thing,” Thompson says. “Whatever we build out there for wave-action generation is gonna have to be one tough dude.”

Topping the list of fishermen’s worries is the potential impact on the Dungeness crab industry, currently Oregon’s most lucrative fishery. Last season’s harvest obliterated all previous records, with the state’s 430 permit holders hauling in almost 34 million pounds of the prized shellfish — and injecting $50 million into local economies.

With that much money — and that many livelihoods — at stake, the potential for conflict between crabbers and wave parks is very real. That’s because the same conditions that make for good crabbing also make for good wave action. For now, though, the fishing community is cooperating, encouraged by the way OSU has reached out to them.

“The university did the right thing by bringing the industry into the project on the ground floor,” says Nick Furman, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. “They could have sent out an e-mail or a fax that said, ‘We’ve got this wave project out there and here’s the GPS — the latitude and longitude coordinates. We want you to notify the crab fleet to stay out of that area.’ That would have been the quickest way to alienate the fleet.”

Furman, whose job is to be the “eyes and ears” of Oregon’s crabbers, thinks OSU is going about it in the right way. “They’re saying, ‘We want to share this area of the ocean. How can we do it to minimize the impacts and be good neighbors?'”

Nudge to the Future

Wave Power Prototypes

OSU’s “direct-drive” buoy approaches allow electrical generators to respond directly to ocean waves. Inside the Permanent Magnet Linear Generator Buoy, wave motion causes specially designed electrical coils to move through a magnetic field, inducing voltages and generating electricity.

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Reedsport faces the same hard reality confronting rural communities everywhere. It’s what Furman calls the “biopolitics” of resource management, the eternal tension between consumption and conservation. But just as farmers have found new possibilities in the wind that once blew unnoticed across the land — now leasing easements to utilities for wind-powered turbines — so, too, residents in coastal communities are discovering unimagined potentials in their oceans. Beach towns like Reedsport are being nudged toward the cutting edge of energy technology. The residents who have stayed on here — tough, rooted, doggedly optimistic people like Tom Tymchuk — are tapping into the resilience and the ingenuity that sustain communities through tough times. Those resources, anyway, are not in short supply around here.

Meanwhile, von Jouanne, Wallace and their team of enthusiastic undergraduate and graduate students are immersed in computer models and wave tanks, teasing out the mysteries of wave energy in their labs. OSU’s College of Engineering is seeking $3 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to build the national wave energy research center, where the engineers hope to test not only their own designs but those of other researchers and commercial developers. In just a few years, the nation’s first large commercial wave park could be generating ocean-based power and science in the offshore swells of Reedsport, Oregon.