The Trump administration ended with a series of last-minute environmental rollbacks. But the day before President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Trump’s Department of the Interior also, bizarrely, snuck in what could be a big win for renewable energy.
On Monday, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Management finalized a lease for Oregon State University’s PacWave South center to deploy technologies to generate energy from ocean waves. It’s the agency’s first-ever lease for a wave energy project.
“We expected we’d have to wait until the Biden administration came in to see this lease,” Burke Hales, a professor at Oregon State University and chief scientist at PacWave, said. “It was, I can say, a surprise.”
The lease covers some 4,270 acres located roughly seven miles (11.3 kilometers) off the coast of Newport, Oregon. The wave energy project sited there will include four mooring berths, each with its own underwater cable running to the shore and connected to the grid. The project is still awaiting final permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which are expected in a few weeks.
At maximum capacity, the project could generate 20 megawatts of power—enough to power 20,000 houses—though Hales said it’s more likely to only reach one tenth of that potential. But more importantly, the project will allow researchers to look into the viability of expanding the use of the technology in the future.
“This is really a proving ground for the future of wave energy,” he said. “It will be the only testing facility in the U.S., in North America.”
Wave power works by capturing the energy that waves produce both above and below the surface as they roll across ocean. Scientists have known for decades about the potential to harness this energy for the grid, but while European countries have made plans to bring it to fruition, projects in the U.S. are still in development. President Joe Biden has pledged to decarbonize the U.S. electric grid by 2035, and wave power could play a role in meeting that goal. According to the Energy Information Administration, waves off the coast of the U.S. could generate 2.64 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity. That’s 64% of all the electricity the country generated in 2019.
“Marine energy has the potential to power millions of homes and newly emerging blue economy markets with clean renewable electricity,” LeRoy Coleman, director of communications for the National Hydropower Association, wrote in an email.
To push this technology forward, the White House and Congress should ensure that more funds are allocated for renewable energy research and deployment in the future.
“One of the most significant challenges to the domestic marine energy industry is the need to continually attract private investment to fund innovation and initial demonstrations during the pre-competitive stages of technology development,” Coleman said. “As with more mature power generation technologies, such as advanced gas turbines or solar converter systems, support from the U.S. federal government for critical early stage innovation and technology deployment efforts is key to igniting commercialization of the marine energy industry.”
Hales said that if the Biden administration makes grants available to corporations working on new forms of wave power technology, there would be takers for those funds immediately. He noted there’s been a lot of work in the lab, but the newer systems haven’t been “really fully tested in the open ocean.”
These technologies work in various ways. Some are chambered devices partly in the water and an underwater opening toward the direction waves come from. When waves move into them, they push the water upward, resulting in an air pressure change that can produce electricity. Other devices, known as plant observers, are made of segmented pieces that lie on the ocean floor. When waves pass over the segments, they move similar to the capture and release of energy in a spring, but in this case, generating electricity.
As more and more prototypes are deployed for testing—and potentially operational use down the road—any wave energy research program will need to also focus on its impact on ecosystems as well.
“There’s the question of how to make sure this doesn’t disturb marine wildlife with sounds from installing the technology or with chemicals that may come from the installation,” Patrick Mazza, a renewable energy researcher and activist based in the Pacific Northwest who co-founded the nonprofit Community Solutions and is president of the board of 350.org Seattle, said. “Like with any renewable energy, we need to ensure it’s safe.”
PacWave’s researchers have spent eight years working to address these concerns. To ensure that grey whales in the area aren’t disturbed, the developers will stay out of the waters when the animals are migrating. They’ve also routed the project’s power cables in a way that avoids interfering with rare butterflies, birds, and bats. The same level of diligence would need to be applied to every wave energy project.
But the upside is clear. By funding research into, and the safe deployment of, technologies to capture all that wave energy, we can ensure it doesn’t go to waste.