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Projects across the nation seek to harness wave energy
The Providence Journal


August 21, 2007

The model is simple: three plastic pipes that form a triangle-shaped buoy, bouncing up and down in a University of Rhode Island wave tank. It is designs like this that hold the potential to harness a new source of power.

The spar buoy is part of a research project being conducted by Malcolm Spaulding, a professor of ocean engineering at the university's Graduate School of Oceanography;

Spaulding specializes in computer models of ocean currents. His work has been used to search for people and vessels lost at sea, predict damage from oil spills and track marine pollution.

With the buoy, Spaulding and fellow scientists hope to turn the churning, rolling ocean waves into pure electricity.

Inside each PVC pipe are magnetic generators capable of producing small amounts of energy, about 0.2 watts at its peak. If the model is built to a larger scale, with pipes 10 meters -- or 32.8 feet -- it could generate enough power to charge a battery or be an independent power source for an offshore observation station.

"The idea is to get the design so the more 'heave' we get, the better," Spaulding said.

As any sailor, swimmer or surfer can attest, the ocean is a strong and vibrant source of power.

Research in converting wave energy into electricity started in the United States during the 1970s oil crisis, Spaulding said. Since then, there have been many companies attempting to turn the force of the pounding surf and swirling waters into electricity.

Forty-five wave and tidal energy projects have been approved around the country, and 15 other proposals are pending, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Web site.

There are six projects under way that will use the currents of the Long Island Sound. The endeavor that is the furthest along is by Verdant Power, a Canadian-American renewable energy company that recently placed six tidal turbines, similar in design to underwater windmills, in the East River in New York City. The electricity is being used to power a Gristedes supermarket, a parking structure and a Verdant control room, according to the company's Web site.

Other wave turbines are planned for Vineyard Sound in Massachusetts, off the coast of Florida in the Atlantic, San Francisco Bay in California, Puget Sound in Washington and waterways along Alaska, Maine and Oregon.

In the Ocean State, an Australian company has expressed an interest in tapping into the energy of the waves.

Oceanlinx, a renewable wave energy company based in Sydney, proposes installing a wave turbine off Block Island and 10 turbines off Point Judith. The turbines, which are still being designed, would be floating moors, each capable of generating up to 1.5 megawatts of electricity, said John Bell, the Oceanlinx chief financial officer. One megawatt can power 900 homes, according to energy consulting firm UtiliPoint's Web site.

The project would cost about $44 million. The company would pay for the Block Island project, which would cost $4 million, while the Point Judith project would be supported by public and private funds, Bell said.

Both proposals are in the design phase and would require approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as well as local government agencies, Bell said. The company has a test model at its site in Port Kembla, Australia.

One of the benefits of wave energy is low pollution.

"There is no fuel cost in that the wave activity is there," Bell said. "It's low visual impact. In our experience, so far, these devices are attractive to marine life. There's no noise generated. There are no moving parts about it."

Bell also said the company is developing a version of the turbine that will contain water desalinization equipment to turn ocean water into drinking water.

Oceanlinx also proposes building wave turbines in Oregon, Hawaii and the United Kingdom.


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