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Off Oregon's coast, researchers hope to pump electricity from surf to turf

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Along Oregon's postcard coast, generations have tapped the ocean for its rich fisheries. Now, a new generation wants to tap it for electricity.

The goal is to wrest kilowatts from the Pacific Ocean waves by using small floating generators that ride the rolling swells and convert the up-and-down motion into usable volts.

In late July, New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technologies, Inc., filed for a preliminary permit with the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to anchor one of its generating buoys off Gardiner, Ore. Meanwhile, researchers at Oregon State University are working to establish a national wave-energy research and demonstration facility here off Newport.

The efforts highlight a renewed interest in the US for enlisting waves and tides in the quest for renewable energy sources and greater energy independence, specialists say.

Ocean energy is still in its infancy, specialists emphasize, and work remains to be done to make it economical enough to hook to the grid. But smaller, more powerful turbines; advances in marine cables and anchoring techniques; and other developments may allow today's power-plant designs to avoid some of the technical and environmental hurdles that plagued ocean-power proposals in the 1970s and '80s, they add.

"If you are careful in selecting sites, it can be viable for those areas and eventually cost-effective," says Andy Trenka, with the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

So far, tidal energy – which relies on the rise-and-fall of tides – appears to be garnering more interest than wave energy, which exploits the waves' rise-and-fall.

"While it's a poor choice of words, its been somewhat of a land rush in the last year or so in terms of interest in developing potential tidal energy sites," says Bryan Lee, a spokesman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C. Over the past two years, the agency has issued preliminary permits for 11 projects in Florida, New York, California, and Washington. This year, it received 11 more applications for projects in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.

One tidal project, for example, involves Verdant Power, LLC, based in Arlington, Va. This summer, the company set six windmill-like tidal turbines into the bottom of the East River in New York City. It's a stepping stone to a 10-megawatt tidal-energy plant there.


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