A novel approach to generating wave energy moved forward in Oregon on Thursday with the launch of the M3 Wave APEX, an experimental device that hopes to beat the bobbers – devices that generate power through mechanical action at the ocean surface – by sitting stationary at the bottom of the sea. Essentially, it hopes to win by avoiding waves.
As the World War II-era buoy tender Ironwood, now a training vessel out of the Tongue Point Job Corps Center in Astoria, maneuvered against a swell to steady itself, the one-fifth scale wave energy converter was hoisted overboard and lowered about fifty feet down to the seafloor, a mile and a quarter off the coast from Camp Rilea, an Oregon National Guard training center that envisions using wave energy in its pursuit of net-zero status.
In one sense, the two-week test of the 5,000-pound, 30-foot-long, 8-foot-wide APEX is just the latest in a seemingly endless range of schemes brought forth to capture a portion of the world’s vast marine energy resource. It’s a small one at that; the scaled-down version’s output is likely to be measured in the tens of kilowatts, at best, and with no grid connection any power it does generate will be burned off. But APEX’s inventors believe their device has a key advantage over other wave wannabes and could point the nascent industry in a new direction.
“Submerged, stationary and secure – those are the key things we can say about our technology that are unique,” said Mike Morrow, CEO of M3 Wave, based in Salem, Oregon. “We think that by avoiding the abusive environment at the surface of the ocean and the over-engineering required to survive that environment, and without exposed moving parts, we have a concept that can cost-effectively produce energy.”
Morrow and co-inventor Mike Delos-Reyes came up with their design in 1991 while studying mechanical engineering at Oregon State University. If nothing else, they have an inspiring company creation story: They used milk crates, plastic bags from the school cafeteria and plastic Dairy Queen spoons to cobble together the first prototype.
The M3 concept works by taking advantage of underwater pressure changes caused by waves passing overhead. Those pressure changes deflate an air bladder at one end of the device, pushing air through a column to a bladder at the other end of the device. As the wave rolls along, the pressure shifts and the action reverses, sending air in the other direction. All the while, the moving air turns a bidirectional turbine at the center of the column.
At full scale, M3 believes one of its devices could produce 150 kilowatts of power. That’s the starting point for many competing concepts. But M3 believes the simplicity of its design will make it less costly, and points out that several of its devices could fit unobtrusively and tightly arrayed in the space taken up by a single surface device and its mooring system. That’s not an unimportant point – the seas may be vast, but they have many users. Shippers, fishers and recreationalists aren’t keen on intruders.
The fishing industry in particular has been skeptical of wave power in Oregon, but after several years of painstaking effort, the state recently approved the Oregon Territorial Sea Plan, which now earmarks three sites, comprising barely 2 percent of the state’s ocean waters, for possible renewable energy study and development.
Commercialization of wave energy could help balance the grid in Oregon, where power now moves almost exclusively from east to west. With electricity cheap in Oregon, however, many developers, like M3, see wave energy initially gaining traction as an emergency source or in locations that rely on high-priced diesel to generate electricity, such as remote Southeastern Alaska or island nations. Oregon is OK with that – it hopes to become the center for research, development, testing and manufacturing.
M3 has been a beneficiary of that hope, receiving around $400,000 in state backing, mostly through the Oregon Wave Energy Trust. The company also got a $240,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant, but given the challenge of inventing a new energy-generating technology, the company operates on an extremely tight budget. Neither Morrow nor Delos-Reyes take a salary – they both retain jobs as engineers at Hewlett-Packard – and every cost-cutting advantage is sought.
A case in point was the use of theIronwood for the APEX deployment instead of hiring a marine services company. That helped M3’s bottom line and also gave the budding seaman from the Tongue Point Job Corps Center an invaluable training experience, according to Capt. Len Tumbarello, who runs the program.
The deployment itself was not without a bit of drama; the plan had been to lower APEX into the sea as quickly as possible after lifting it off the Ironwood deck in order to avoid possible damage. But when the device was moved over the side of the ship, the crane hydraulics failed, leaving APEX dangling a few feet above the water as the Ironwoodrocked to and fro. But the crew kept the device steady and after a nervous minute or two it went into the water.
As the Ironwood then headed back to Astoria, a dive team from a small craft went down to check on and activate the device. A short while later, Capt. Tumbarello announced over the ship PA that for the first time ever, wave pressure differential was generating power in the Pacific.
The device is laden with gear to collect data, and the M3 team will do periodic check-ins on it over the next two weeks. Of particular interest is whether sediment might shift or even partially bury APEX. “But that’s why we’re doing this,” Morrow said. “We have a lot of confidence in our technology, but to move it forward to the next step, we needed to get it into the water and see what happens. So here we are.”