Cruel sea, scarce cash hinder quests to harness ocean’s might

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Engineers are chasing clean power’s great white whale in the bay’s cold, dark waters.

Their quest to harness marine hydrokinetic energy (MHK) isn’t quite the stuff of legend yet. They’re just trying to glimpse Moby Dick — and aim for a more profitable ending.

Out of the murky deep one chilly fall morning, engineers from Ocean Renewable Power Co. hauled in what for them was a thrilling catch: a 60-foot-long metal tube encased in rust, slime, seaweed and a few mollusks.

The glorious mess drew oohs and ahs. After three months submerged, the device had abrasions on mooring lines, unknown liquid oozing from its bolts and — most important — loads of data about how energy-tapping devices and materials fare in tough conditions.

“The data is really valuable because there is not a lot of it,” said Brenda LeMay, the company’s chief financial officer.

Most marine-energy ventures — playing catch-up to land-based solar and wind developers — are eager to see what Ocean Renewable and others learn from their underwater exploits. They work in a harsh environment where salt and physical pressure from the ocean’s drag create stresses that exceed those faced by other renewable resources.

Offshore work is equipment- and labor-intensive, with an armada of barges and cranes, and helmeted divers who look like they splashed out of the 1954 movie “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

For all the trouble, the ocean offers a dense energy source that’s nearly constant, easy to forecast and plentiful near densely populated coastal areas with the highest electric demand. DOE estimates that the recoverable ocean-based energy potential in U.S. waters is 2,195 terrawatt-hours per year.

Marine hydrokinetic technology encompasses many efforts to create power by tapping tides, waves, currents and temperature variations. It also can include energy drawn from rivers but usually does not include traditional dams for hydroelectric power (see sidebar).

Marine and hydrokinetic technologies

While they have some similar issues, each has unique problems. Tidal is closer to commercialization than wave, current or thermal technologies, but wave energy has the greatest available power, experts say.

“Although the potential is almost limitless, it’s a tough environment,” Michael Liebreich, chairman of the advisory board at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said earlier this year. “It is possible to make equipment reliable, as the offshore oil and gas industry has shown, but it’s not cheap.”

Or as Richard Kimball, technical director of the Marine Engine Testing and Emissions Laboratory and an engineering professor at the Maine Maritime Academy, noted: An oil rig costs about $1 billion, but marine hydrokinetic devices must be $10 million or less.

“They are building a jet aircraft, and we are building a Ford,” he said.

But Ted Brekken, an associate professor of energy systems at Oregon State University, notes that engineering isn’t the most difficult part of marine hydrokinetic development. Money and patience are more important, he said.

“Certainly, there is room for innovation. But it is not like you are waiting for cold fusion,” Brekken said.

“The trick is getting the right investments, the right capital together, to survive that period of extensive testing, permitting, local acceptance, getting technology that works, suffering through various failures that are inevitable. And for ocean wave energy, that is an expensive process — more expensive and more arduous than other areas.”

‘Finicky beast’

There’s a saying in the marine industry that work that takes an hour in a lab takes three hours on dry land and eight hours in the water.

There is an extra level of logistics and planning necessary for marine hydrokinetic technology, said Jarlath McEntee, Ocean Renewable Power’s vice president of engineering and chief technology officer.

“Once it is in the water, I can’t see it. I can’t go up to it and knock on it,” McEntee said. “It has to be all ready to go as a stand-alone.”

Researchers do their best to prepare using indoor wave tanks (There are about 20 nationwide that are suitable for ocean energy testing, according to DOE).

Wave tanks are various lengths and sizes. Oregon State University, for example, has a tank that is 160 feet long, 90 feet wide and only 7 feet deep for smaller demonstrations. It has a second tank for testing bigger waves that is 340 feet long, 12 feet wide and 15 feet deep.

The University of Maine will soon have a tank with a circulating wind tunnel to test offshore wind technology along with marine hydrokinetic devices.

Once at sea, the first demonstrations are still usually about an eighth the size of a commercial device, to try to smooth out any additional problems created by outdoor conditions.

Anything goes in the open ocean — which is “a very finicky beast,” said Mike Morrow, CEO of M3 Wave Energy Systems LLC, whose company also just finished deploying a project off the coast of Oregon to demonstrate technology for snaring power from the changing underwater pressure.

A company “cannot turn the ocean off” to get base-line readings for instruments, he said.

But when M3 tried to scale down its APEX device to test it in a 30-foot wave tank, it also made the sand too small, so the sand behaved like clay instead.

“You can do all the simulation and work in wave tanks you want,” Morrow said, “but until you get out there, you won’t know what you don’t know.”

And you won’t know unless you go to sea with a fat wallet.

Ocean testing is very expensive and the Achilles’ heel of marine-kinetic entrepreneurs. The required ships and marine expertise needed to deploy and retrieve offshore devices can sink a startup.

The price tag for even a smaller pilot demonstration could be about $150,000, Morrow said.

While Ocean Renewable Power did not disclose the price for deploying and retrieving the anchor and mooring system for its OCGen Technology, the retrieval operation required contracting with two boat captains and their lobster-style work boats, a three-person diving team, a crew of seven to run the ships and equipment, and a special modular barge, as well as some land crew support.

The barge made by CPM Constructors is a less expensive option than the commercial barge and crane a marine-energy company would normally have to rent, which could cost $100,000 or so per venture, CPM President Eldon Morrison said.

The helmeted diver, an ex-Navy SEAL, who worked on Ocean Renewable’s operation, also is an expensive commodity. He had the most dangerous job, diving down up to 100 feet through a murky high tide to the bay floor several times so he could unhook lines to the device — a job that must be finished before air runs out, about 40 minutes. The diver was down and back up in about 30 minutes for this retrieval.

There were also five Ocean Renewable team members present for consultation if necessary, but once an operation is underway, it is mainly the site supervisor, pilots and contractors executing a previously approved, rehearsed and re-rehearsed plan.

The devil is in the deployment

The system being tested here would be the company’s most powerful design so far, developed to generate energy in water depths of more than 80 feet, with a peak generating capacity of 500 kilowatts in a 6-knot water current.

Ocean Renewable has two other technologies based on turbines deployed in the water: the RivGen power system, which it is testing in Alaska, and the TidGen system.

The TidGen system was also tested in Cobscook Bay, off Eastport, Maine, and in 2012 became the first commercial, grid-connected tidal power project hooked up to a utility grid in the Americas, the company said.

Marine hydrokinetic companies have been focused on the turbines and generation parts for a long time, but now “the real interesting parts are the deployment,” said Kimball, an early advocate of the technology.

Deployment of the technology encompasses transmission, anchors and moorings engineered to withstand powerful 50-year or 100-year storms — the precise standard is still being worked out — along with other standards and environmental permitting.

Permitting ocean energy devices is new for state and federal agencies, and it also adds to the uncertainty and expense of the industry.

Earlier this year, one of the forerunners in the industry, New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technologies Inc., backed out of a venture off the Oregon coast that would have been the first U.S. grid-connected wave project, after it had received $4.4 million from DOE.

The company said “considerable cost increases” had forced it to abandon the project, with some experts pointing to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s licensing process as a major part of its ballooning price tag. Five months later, the company fired its CEO “for cause” and cancelled a similar project in Australia, stating that it was not “commercially viable” (E&ENews PM, June 10).

Ocean Power’s interim CEO, David Keller, announced last month that the company would launch its “powerbuoy” technology off New Jersey late next year and “rapidly execute our strategic shift to capitalize on the growing market for offshore data collection and transmission that require off grid power production at smaller scale.”

The very public missteps by one of the top marine hydrokinetic companies have added to the reluctance of private investors to invest, and most funding for the industry is still primarily provided through government.

While DOE’s marine hydrokinetic program hasn’t had a star turn like the solar program’s SunShot, “the program has transitioned from a discovery phase to one that is making some pretty aggressive investment really targeted at cost reductions and ensuring MHK has a place in renewable portfolio choices,” said Jose Zayas, director of DOE’s Wind and Water Power Technologies Office.

DOE is currently focusing its funding more on “proactive project siting,” environmental impacts, data gathering, wildlife and biology behavior monitoring and intergovernmental cooperation, Zayas said.

Waiting for venture capital

Still, DOE’s backing for marine power pales in comparison to that provided for solar and wind.

The Obama administration cut the marine hydrokinetic budget by $11 million, to $31 million, in its proposed fiscal 2015 budget. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April that the agency would consider “rebalancing” funding for marine energy research, which had been cut to provide a bit more support for “nearer-term” technology like micro-hydro and new stream-reach generation (E&E Daily, April 11).

The total DOE water budget request — including hydropower — was $62.5 million, compared to the wind program at $115 million and solar at $282 million for fiscal 2015.

DOE distributed about $120 million for marine hydrokinetic projects between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2014, with more than half going to private companies and with funding going predominantly to projects on the coastlines, according to a 2014 DOE report. DOE has announced about $28 million in the past few months to support ocean energy projects, including $10 million for two projects to test wave energy conversion devices for one year at the Navy’s Wave Energy Test Site in Hawaii.

Ocean Renewable Power has received almost $17 million in DOE funding for projects ranging from acoustic monitoring of beluga whales in Alaska to connecting its TidGen power system to the grid. M3 Wave received $240,000 in DOE funding in fiscal 2010 to test commercialization of its submerged near-shore wave energy device.

DOE has also spent millions of dollars to support the creation of three marine-power testing sites: the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, operated jointly by Oregon State University and the University of Washington; the Hawaii National Marine Renewable Energy Center, operated by the University of Hawaii with a collaborative test site with the Navy — the nation’s only grid-connected open-water test site; and the Southeast National Marine Renewable Energy Center, operated by Florida Atlantic University.

The U.S. facilities trail the European Marine Energy Centre, based in the United Kingdom’s Orkney Islands, which was founded in 2003 as the only accredited, grid-connected facility to test both wave and tidal technologies. It was established with $60 million in government funding but has been self-funded for the past four years. The United Kingdom tops its European peers in having deployed four wave and two tidal energy devices, the largest of which, off the coast of Ireland, has a 1.2-megawatt capacity (ClimateWire, Oct. 7).

MMA’s Kimball said that even though European countries have a head start on marine kinetic deployment, companies there have told him they are excited to see the U.S. industry start moving.

“They are waiting for the American entrepreneurial machine,” Kimball said.

Most venture capitalists are waiting to see which marine technology is worth their cash. Some say the marine ventures compare with the wind development in the 1970s.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently lowered its 2020 projections for marine hydrokinetic technologies, forecasting tidal stream capacity to rise to 148 MW and wave energy to 21 MW. In 2013, the analysts had estimated that marine hydrokinetic would hit 167 MW for tidal stream capacity and 74 MW for wave energy.

“I keep coming back to money, plain and simple,” said Morrow, who keeps a full-time job at Hewlett-Packard to pay his bills. “We as a country are not serious about [ocean energy] right now.”

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