America is getting its very first wave power farm! Ocean Power Technologies, a New Jersey-based firm, is currently installing giant buoys off the coast of Reedsport, Oregon. Once all ten buoys are in place, developers hope to use them to harness the energy of wave motion and generate power for hundreds of area homes.
Each buoy will measure about 150 feet tall by 40 feet wide and weigh in at about 200 tons. A float on each craft rises and falls with the rolling of the waves, driving an attached plunger’s up-and-down movement. A hydraulic pump then converts that movement into a spinning motion, which drives an electric generator. The electricity produced by the generator moves from sea to land via submerged cables. Right now, developers are finishing up construction on the first buoy, and it will take about 60 million big ones to finish up all ten. Once the entire system is in place, about 400 homes will derive their power from Oregon’s coastal waters.
Construction of the first buoy is an encouraging development, but the system still has some challenges to overcome. For one, wave power currently costs about six times that of wind power (although once the technology is optimized it should see comparable prices, especially because waves are more predictable than wind or solar power). Secondly, keeping the buoys in place and free from damages caused by big waves can be tricky. And so far, wave power’s history doesn’t paint the most promising picture: The world’s first commercial wind farm opened in 2008 in Portugal, but power production was suspended due to financial difficulties. Moreover, two years ago, a Canadian-produced wave power device sank off Oregon’s coast.
Still, if engineers can master the art of cost-effective wind power, it would be a huge boon for the renewables field. Waves are both free and predictable, so harnessing them to generate electricity would be great. Other wind farm projects are currently underway in countries like Spain, Scotland, Western Australia and England. If all goes according to plan, Oregon’s wind farm will see completion by 2012.