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JOHN UPTON, San Francisco Examiner, January 28, 2010

Tracking gray whales as they migrate past the San Francisco shoreline will help provide key information for a proposed plan to for a wave energy farm.

The mammals — which can grow up to 50 feet long, weigh up to 40 tons and are considered endangered on the West Coast — migrate between the Alaskan coast to the shores off Mexico, where they give birth to their young.

During their travels, the whales pass near Ocean Beach — but there is a lack of information about exactly where.

Moss Landing Marine Laboratories researchers will partner with San Francisco and track the mammals’ depth and distance from the shoreline using visual surveys and satellite tracking devices. A review of existing scientific literature will also be undertaken.

“There’s a fair amount of data on gray whales down around Monterey,” San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Project Manager Randall Smith said. “But there’s a data gap off the San Francisco coastline.”

The study will help city officials decide how and where to safely place an array of potentially-revolutionary underwater devices that might eventually deliver power as cheaply as solar panels.

The farm would capture and convert into electricity the power of arctic storm-generated waves as they pulse toward Ocean Beach.

A wide variety of devices are being developed worldwide that could help capture the wave power: Some bob near the surface, others float midwater like balloons, and a third type undulates like kelp along the seafloor.

Learning about gray whale migration patterns will help officials determine which devices would minimize the risk of whale collisions and decide where they should be located.

Research by UC Berkeley professor Ronald Yeung previously identified Ocean Beach as having strong potential for the nascent form of energy generation.

A wave study completed by San Francisco city contractors in December confirmed the site’s potential, according to Smith.

“Potentially, we could do a 30-megawatt wave farm out there,” Smith said.

The timelines and investment structure of the wave project are unclear, largely because the U.S. Minerals Management Service — which historically managed gas and oil deposits — was recently charged with regulating offshore renewable energy projects.

While the SFPUC waits for the service to finalize its permit application procedures, it’s forging ahead with an environmental review of the project required by California law, which includes the whale study.

Gray whales – the giant mammals are an endangered species.

Annual migration: 10,000 miles
Length: Up to 50 feet
Weight: Up to 80,000 pounds
Lifespan: In excess of 75 years
Maturity: Six to 12 years
Gestation: 12 to 13 months
Newborn calves: 14 to 16 feet long; 2,000 pounds

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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DAVID TOW, Future Planet, January 16, 2010

By 2015 India and China will both have outstripped the US in energy consumption by a large margin. Cap and Trade carbon markets will have been established by major developed economies, including India and China, as the most effective way to limit carbon emissions and encourage investment in renewable energy, reforestation projects etc.

There will have been a significant shift by consumers and industry to renewable energy technologies- around 25%, powered primarily by the new generation adaptive wind and solar energy mega-plants, combined with the rapid depletion of the most easily accessible oil fields. Coal and gas will continue to play a major role at around 60% useage, with clean coal and gas technologies still very expensive. Nuclear technology will remain static at 10% and hydro at 5%.

Most new vehicles and local transport systems will utilise advanced battery or hydrogen electric power technology, which will continue to improve energy density outputs.

Efficiency and recycling savings of the order of 30% on today’s levels will be available from the application of smart adaptive technologies in power grids, communication, distribution and transport networks, manufacturing plants and consumer households. This will be particularly critical for the sustainability of cities across the planet. Cities will also play a critical role in not only supporting the energy needs of at least 60% of the planet’s population through solar, wind, water and waste energy capture but will feed excess capacity to the major power grids, providing a constant re-balancing of energy supply across the world.

By 2025 a global Cap and Trade regime will be mandatory and operational worldwide. Current oil sources will be largely exhausted but the remaining new fields will be exploited in the Arctic, Antarctic and deep ocean locations.  Renewable energy will account for 40% of useage, including baseload power generation. Solar and wind power will dominate in the form of huge desert solar and coastal and inland wind farms; but all alternate forms- wave, geothermal, secondary biomass, algael etc will begin to play a significant role.

Safer helium-cooled and fast breeder fourth generation modular nuclear power reactors will replace many of the older water-cooled and risk-prone plants, eventually  accounting for around 15% of energy production; with significant advances in the storage of existing waste in stable ceramic materials.

By 2035 global warming will reach a critical threshold with energy useage tripling from levels in 2015, despite conservation and efficiency advances. Renewables will account for 60% of the world’s power supply, nuclear 15% and fossils 25%. Technologies to convert CO2 to hydocarbon fuel together with more efficient recycling and sequestration, will allow coal and gas to continue to play a significant role.

By 2045-50 renewables will be at 75-80% levels, nuclear 12% and clean fossil fuels 10-15%. The first Hydrogen and Helium3 pilot fusion energy plants will be commissioned, with large-scale generators expected to come on stream in the latter part of the century, eventually reducing carbon emissions to close to zero.

However the above advances will still be insufficient to prevent the runaway effects of global warming. These long-term impacts will raise temperatures well beyond the additional two-three degrees centigrade critical limit.

Despite reduction in emissions by up to 85%, irreversible and chaotic feedback impacts on the global biosphere will be apparent. These will be triggered by massive releases of methane from permafrost and ocean deposits, fresh water flows from melting ice causing disruptions to ocean currents and weather patterns.

These will affect populations beyond the levels of ferocity of the recent Arctic freeze, causing chaos in the northern hemisphere and reaching into India and China and the droughts and heat waves of Africa, the Middle East and Australia.

The cycle of extreme weather events and rising oceans that threaten to destroy many major coastal cities will continue to increase, compounded by major loss of ecosystems, biodiversity and food capacity. This will force a major rethink of the management of energy and climate change as global catastrophe threatens.

Increasingly desperate measures will be canvassed and tested, including the design of major geo-engineering projects aimed at reducing the amount of sunlight reaching earth and reversal of the acidity of the oceans. These massive infrastructure projects would have potentially enormous ripple-on effects on all social, industrial and economic systems. They are eventually assessed to be largely ineffective, unpredictable and unsustainable.

As forecasts confirm that carbon levels in the atmosphere will remain high for the next 1,000 years, regardless of mitigating measures, priorities shift urgently to the need to minimise risk to life on a global scale, while protecting civilisation’s core infrastructure, social, knowledge and cultural assets.

Preserving the surviving natural ecosystem environment and the critical infrastructure of the built environment, particularly the Internet and Web, will now be vital. The sustainability of human life on planet Earth, in the face of overwhelming catastrophe, will be dependent to a critical degree on the power of the intelligent Web 4.0, combining human and artificial intelligence to manage food, water, energy and human resources.

Only the enormous problem-solving capacity of this human-engineered entity, will be capable of ensuring the continuing survival of civilisation as we know it.

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FRANK HARTZELL, Mendocino Beacon, December 17, 2009

The Obama administration has launched a new “zoning” approach that puts all ocean activities under the umbrella of nine regional planning bodies.

Public comments are being accepted through Friday, Feb. 12.

The approach is more local and integrated than the current strategy, which puts separate functions under different federal agencies. But it remains to be seen how such a plan can satisfy a plethora of federal laws that now protect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.

The issue of whales killed by ships (like the blue whale kill in October off Fort Bragg) is cited in the new report as an example of how the regional planning approach could solve problems that single agencies cannot.

In the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Boston, the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and several other government agencies and stakeholders reconfigured the Boston Traffic Separation Scheme, after numerous fatal collisions between marine mammals and ships.

This kind of joint action is what the new Obama approach anticipates using nationwide.

The reconfigured shipping lanes reduced risk of collision by an estimated 81% for all baleen whales and 58% for endangered right whales, studies show.

NOAA is the lone federal agency dealing with the whale kill issue locally, working with two state agencies, which have regulations that are inconsistent. With the Fort Bragg incident highlighting weaknesses in the regulatory process, a regional board could propose solutions.

In another example of oversight conflict, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) planned and launched a policy for wave energy leasing completely without local governments’ knowledge. Other federal agencies also bombarded FERC with criticism and problems their federal fellow had failed to anticipate when FERC’s program came to light.

The Obama administration’s idea is to bring all the federal and local agencies to the table at the planning stage, not the reactive stage.

“The uses of our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes have expanded exponentially over time,” said Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who also heads the Ocean Policy Task Force. “At the same time they are facing environmental challenges, including pollution and habitat destruction, that make them increasingly vulnerable.

“Without an improved, more thoughtful approach, we risk an increase in user conflicts and the potential loss of critical economic, ecosystem, social, and cultural benefits for present and future generations,” said Sutley, in a press release.

Many scientific studies have called for ocean zoning, but this is the first effort to make the idea work.

California, Oregon and Washington would be included in a single planning area The participants in the planning process, such as Indian tribes, federal agencies, states and local entities, would be asked to sign a contract modeled on development agreements.

Development agreements are widely used by housing developers to bring all county and state permitting agencies to the table so they can get loans and prepare to launch a project.

Sutley said the administration will reconvene the National Ocean Council to work with the regional planning bodies.

While the new approach promises more locally responsive planning, the job of the National Ocean Council will be to ensure that planning is consistent from region to region. That is likely to create some conflicts with monied interests representing some uses, such as oil drilling, and leave other uses with less ability to advocate at the table.

The proposal comes from the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, established by President Obama on June 12. It is led by Sutley and consists of 24 senior-level officials from administration agencies, departments and offices.

The task force’s interim framework is available for a 60-day public review and comment period. After the close of the comment period, the task force will finalize its recommendations in both this report and the Sept. 10 interim report and provide a final report to the President in early 2010.

For more details on the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, including the interim framework, and to submit comments, visit www.whitehouse.gov/oceans.

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DAVID R. BAKER, San Francisco Chronicle, December 12, 2009

The waves off of Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central California coast could one day generate electricity, if Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has its way.

The utility reported Friday that it has signed an agreement with the U.S. Air Force to study the area’s potential for a wave power project. If approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the project could one day generate as much as 100 megawatts of electricity. A megawatt is a snapshot figure, roughly equal to the amount of electricity used by 750 average homes at any given instant.

Wave power technologies have the potential to provide large amounts of electricity. But they have been slow to leave the lab.

The typical wave power system consists of buoys that generate electricity as they bob up and down on the ocean’s surface. But the ocean has proven tougher than some of the systems.

PG&E two years ago agreed to buy electricity from a proposed “wave park” near Eureka to be built by Canadian company Finavera. But Finavera’s prototype buoy sank during a test, and California energy regulators killed the deal.

Under its $6 million WaveConnect program, PG&E is still studying potential wave park sites off Humboldt County. The utility, based in San Francisco, also examined the Mendocino County coast before ruling it out.

Vandenberg makes an attractive test site. It occupies a bend in the coast of Santa Barbara County where some of the beaches face west, some face southwest and others face south. PG&E in particular wants to study the area between Point Arguello and Point Conception.

“Generally, that piece of the coast is very active for waves,” said PG&E spokesman Kory Raftery. “It picks up swells from different directions.”

If the company wins federal approval, it will study the area for three years before making a decision on whether to test wave power devices there. The company wants to test several different devices but has not yet picked which ones, Raftery said.

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JESSICA MARSHALL, Discovery.com News, November 30, 2009

The patterns that schooling fish form to save energy while swimming have inspired a new wind farm design that researchers say will increase the amount of power produced per acre by at least tenfold.

“For the fish, they are trying to minimize the energy that they consume to swim from Point A to Point B,” said John Dabiri of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who led the study. “In our case, we’re looking at the opposite problem: How to we maximize the amount of energy that we collect?”

“Because both of these problems involve optimizing energy, it turns out that the model that’s useful for one is also useful for the other problem.”

Both designs rely on individuals capturing energy from their neighbors to operate more efficiently.”If there was just one fish swimming, it kicks off energy into the water, and it just gets wasted,” Dabiri said, “but if there’s another fish behind, it can actually use that kinetic energy and help it propel itself forward.”

The wind turbines can do the same thing. Dabiri’s wind farm design uses wind turbines that are oriented to rotate around the support pole like a carousel, instead of twirling like a pinwheel the way typical wind turbines do.

Like the fish, these spinning turbines generate a swirling wake. The energy in this flow can be gathered by neighboring turbines if they are placed close enough together and in the right position. By capturing this wake, two turbines close together can generate more power than each acting alone.

This contrasts with common, pinwheel-style wind turbines where the wake from one interferes with its neighbors, reducing the neighbors’ efficiency. The vortexes occur in the wrong orientation for the neighboring turbines to capture them.

For this reason, such turbines must be spaced at least three diameters to either side and 10 diameters up — or downwind of another, which requires a lot of land.

Although individual carousel-style turbines are less efficient than their pinwheel-style counterparts, the close spacing that enhances their performance means that the amount of power output per acre is much greater for the carousel-style turbines.

Dabiri and graduate student Robert Whittlesey calculated that their best design would generate 100 times more power per acre than a conventional wind farm.

The model required some simplifications, however, so it remains to be seen whether tests of an actual wind farm produce such large gains. That will be the team’s next step. “Even if we’re off by a factor of 10, that’s still a game changer for the technology,” Dabiri noted.

In the end, schooling fish may not have the perfect arrangement. The pair found that the best arrangement of wind turbines did not match the spacing used by schooling fish.

“If we just mimic the fish wake, we can do pretty well,” Dabiri said. “But, as engineers, maybe we’re smarter than fish. It turns out that for this application there is even better performance to be had.”

This may be because fish have other needs to balance in their schooling behavior besides maximizing swimming efficiency. They seek food, avoid predators and reproduce, for example.

“I think that this is a very interesting possibility,” said Alexander Smits of Princeton University, who attended a presentation of the findings at a meeting of the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics in Minneapolis last week.

But a field test will show the idea’s real potential, he noted: “You have to go try these things. You can do a calculation like that and it might not work out. But it seemed like there was a very large reduction in the land usage, and even if you got one half of that, that would be pretty good.”

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WENDEE HOLTCAMP, National Wildlife, December/January 2010

Frank Fish was browsing in a Boston sculpture shop a few years ago when he noticed a whale figurine. His first thought was, “This isn’t right. It’s got bumps on the leading edge of its flipper. It’s always a straight edge.”

Fish, a West Chester University professor specializing in the dynamics of locomotion, was surprised because all flippers he knew of had straight edges—including those of dolphins, penguins and even most whales. The straight-edge blade is also shared by ceiling fans and most industrial blades and rotors. But the store manager showed him a photo of a humpback whale, and sure enough, it had tubercles on its flippers. Humpbacks have a unique habit of catching fish in a bubble net that they create by diving deep and swimming in a spiraling circle, and Fish speculated that the tubercles may somehow give them a hydrodynamic advantage.

Turns out he was right. After testing a scaled-down flipper replica in a wind tunnel, Fish and colleagues Loren Howle and Mark Murray found the tubercles reduced drag by 32% and increased lift by 6% compared with a smooth-edge flipper. The bumps have the same effect on rotors and blades in air—a revolutionary discovery in aerodynamics. Fish co-patented so-called “Tubercle Technology” and in 2005 he helped found Whale Power, a company that is building energy-efficient windmills using scalloped-edge blades. The technology could eventually improve energy-efficiency for any machine that uses turbines, fans or pumps.

Fish is among an increasing number of scientists, inventors and companies turning to the natural world to help them create better, more sustainable products and to find solutions to some of humanity’s most vexing problems. The concept is called biomimicry and the idea behind it is simple: Over the millennia, living organisms in the natural world already have tested and solved many of the challenges humans are grappling with today.

“People are looking for ways to reduce material use, get away from toxic substances and reduce energy use. When they hear about biomimicry, they realize it’s an R&D program that’s been going on for 3.8 billion years,” says biologist Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Guild, a Montana-based consulting firm that provides research and guidance on natural solutions for some of the country’s largest companies and government agencies.

In her landmark 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Benyus issued a call to action, urging people to engage not just in shallow biomimicry—copying nature’s forms—but to push for deep biomimicry where manufacturing processes follow nature’s lead of sustainability. The ideal industrial loop, she says, would work as seamlessly as a redwood forest, where one’s processed wastes become food or input for another and nothing is wasted. In the book, Benyus also compiled dozens of examples of how people are emulating natural processes.

Velcro, for example, one of the most famous products to come from mimicking nature, was created by a Swiss engineer in the 1940s after observing how cockleburs got stuck in his dog’s fur. Three decades later, a German botanist discovered that lotus leaves contain tiny waxy bumps that cause water to bead up and run off the surface, washing and cleaning the leaves in the process. The discovery has since inspired a number of waterproof products including Lotusan, a self-cleaning paint that keeps the outsides of buildings free of algae and fungi.

More recently, scientists from the University of New South Wales discovered a revolutionary antibacterial compound in a type of red algal seaweed that lives off the coast of Australia. Bacteria form slimy biofilms but require a “quorum” to congregate, and so they constantly communicate with one another. The seaweed stays bacteria-free by emitting the compound furanone, which jams the bacteria’s communication sensors. Mimicking that natural action, the Australian company Biosignal created cleaning fluids that keep surfaces bacteria-free without killing them, which is a breakthrough because its use does not lead to the evolution of antibiotic resistance, as has happened with the proliferation of so many antibacterial cleaning compounds. So far, furanone works on various bacteria, including staphylococcus and vibrio, which causes cholera. It also works on the bacteria that corrode pipes, leading to oil spills.

In another flip on tradition, Mercedes-Benz recently modeled an ecologically friendly, fuel-efficient concept vehicle called the Bionic Car after the yellow boxfish, a squarish tropical creature found in reefs in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Traditionally, aerodynamic cars have been built long and lean, but it turns out the boxfish has a drag coefficient nearly equal to that of a drop of water, which has one of the lowest drags possible. The automobile company not only borrowed from the boxfish’s boxy but aerodynamic shape but also from its unique skeletal structure that protects the animal from injury, making the car safer by putting extra material in certain parts of its frame and economizing by lightening up the load elsewhere.

Another product, the UltraCane, was developed not long ago as a result of research at the University of Leeds in Great Britain to help the blind “see” by utilizing the echolocation systems of bats. The cane emits an ultrasonic sound that bounces off objects, allowing vision-impaired people to develop a mental picture of where and how far away objects are—and hence better navigate around them.

In Zimbabwe, the architectural design firm Arup Associates modeled the country’s largest office complex, Eastgate Centre, after the passive cooling system used by African termites in their mounds. Termites farm fungus that they must keep at a precise 87 degrees F, while outside air varies from 35 degrees at night to 104 by day. To accomplish this amazing feat, termites constantly plug and unplug cooling vents that create convection currents, drawing air through the mound as needed. The Eastgate Centre builders copied this model, using fans and chimneys to shunt hot air out, and ground-level cavities to allow cooler air in—a concept known as passive cooling. Without any modern heating or air conditioning, the facility uses only 10% of the electricity of a conventional building its size. The energy-cost savings trickle down to tenants, who pay 20% lower rent than in neighboring buildings.

Elsewhere, scientists are turning to Mother Nature for inspiration for other energy-related materials. To increase the amount of sunlight that is absorbed by solar panels, for instance, a University of Florida researcher is developing a coating for the panels based on the structure of moth eyes, which reflect little light. In China and Japan, scientists are modeling more efficient solar cells after the scales on butterfly wings, which serve as highly effective, microscopic solar collectors.

The benefits humans gain as a result of such research provide a strong argument for conserving wildlife. “Protecting plant and animal habitats means also preserving the wellspring of ideas for the next industrial revolution,” says Benyus, who in 2007 was named by Time magazine as one of its “International Heroes of the Environment.”

That same year, she also founded the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute, which urges companies to donate a percentage of their profits to the habitat from which their biomimicry-inspired products come from. “We must become nature’s apprentice at this point,” she says, “and part of that path has to be preserving the wild places we now realize are the homes of geniuses.”

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ELIZABETH RUSCH, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2009

von-Jouanne-Oregon-Otter-Rock-BeachShe was in the water when the epiphany struck. Of course, Annette von Jouanne was always in the water, swimming in lakes and pools as she was growing up around Seattle, and swimming distance freestyle competitively in high school and college meets. There’s even an exercise pool in her basement, where she and her husband (a former Olympic swimmer for Portugal) and their three kids have spent a great deal of time…swimming.

But in December 1995 she was bodysurfing in Hawaii over the holidays. She’d just begun working as an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Oregon State University. She was 26 years old and eager to make a difference—to find or improve upon a useful source of energy, preferably one that wasn’t scarce or fleeting or unpredictable or dirty. The sun was going down. The wind was dying. She was bobbing in the swells.

“As the sun set, it hit me: I could ride waves all day and all night, all year long,” says von Jouanne. “Wave power is always there. It never stops. I began thinking that there’s got to be a way to harness all the energy of an ocean swell, in a practical and efficient way, in a responsible way.”

Today, von Jouanne is one of the driving forces in the fast-growing field of wave energy—as well as its leading proponent. She will explain to anyone who will listen that unlike wind and solar energy, wave energy is always available. Even when the ocean seems calm, swells are moving water up and down sufficiently to generate electricity. And an apparatus to generate kilowatts of power from a wave can be much smaller than what’s needed to harness kilowatts from wind or sunshine because water is dense and the energy it imparts is concentrated.

All that energy is also, of course, destructive, and for decades the challenge has been to build a device that can withstand monster waves and gale-force winds, not to mention corrosive saltwater, seaweed, floating debris and curious marine mammals. And the device must also be efficient and require little maintenance.

Still, the allure is irresistible. A machine that could harness an inexhaustible, nonpolluting source of energy and be deployed economically in sufficient numbers to generate significant amounts of electricity—that would be a feat for the ages.

Engineers have built dozens of the machines, called wave energy converters, and tested some on a small scale. In the United States, waves could fuel about 6.5% of today’s electricity needs, says Roger Bedard of the Electric Power Research Institute, an energy think tank in Palo Alto, California. That’s the equivalent of the energy in 150 million barrels of oil—about the same amount of power that is produced by all U.S. hydroelectric dams combined—enough to power 23 million typical American homes. The most powerful waves occur on western coasts, because of strong west-to-east global winds, so Great Britain, Portugal and the West Coast of the United States are among the sites where wave energy is being developed.

Aside from swimming, von Jouanne’s other passion as a youngster was learning how things work. It started with small appliances. An alarm clock broke. She unscrewed the back, fixed the mechanism and put it back together. She was about 8 years old. “That was so exciting for me,” she says. She moved on to calculators and then to a computer she bought with money from her paper route. One day, she waited for her parents to leave the house so she could take apart the television and reassemble it before they returned. (Von Jouanne cautions kids not to do as she did: “there is a high-voltage component.”)

When her brothers, older by eight and ten years, came home for college breaks, she pored over their engineering textbooks. (An older sister pursued a business degree.) “Reading them confirmed that, yup, this is what I want to do,” she recalls.

She studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University and for her doctorate at Texas A&M University. She was often one of the few women in a class. “I never saw myself as a woman engineer,” she says. “I saw myself as an engineer trying to make things better for the world.”

At Oregon State University, she related her wave-tossed epiphany to Alan Wallace, a professor of electrical engineering who shared her fascination with the ocean’s power. “We started saying, there’s got to be a way to harness this energy,” she recalls. They studied the wave energy converters then being produced and looked up centuries-old patents for contraptions to extract power from waves. Some resembled windmills, animal cages or ship propellers. A modern one looked like a huge whale. The gadgets all had one problem in common: they were too complicated.

Take, for example, a device called the Pelamis Attenuator, which was recently deployed for four months off the coast of Portugal by Pelamis Wave Power. It looks like a 500-foot-long red snake. As waves travel its length, the machine bends up and down. The bending pumps hydraulic fluid through a motor, which generates electricity. Complex machines like this are riddled with valves, filters, tubes, hoses, couplings, bearings, switches, gauges, meters and sensors. The intermediate stages reduce efficiency, and if one component breaks, the whole device goes kaput.

After analyzing the field, von Jouanne says, “I knew we needed a simpler design.”

Von Jouanne’s lab is named in memory of Wallace, who died in 2006, but the Wallace Energy Systems & Renewables Facility (WESRF) is familiarly known as “We Surf.” Painted in deep blues and grays and bearing murals of curling waves, the lab has been a research facility and testing ground for such innovative products as an all-electric naval ship, a hovercraft and the Ford Escape Hybrid engine. In one corner is a tall buoy that resembles a huge copper-top battery. Beside it another buoy looks like two cross-country skis with wire strung between them. The designs were among von Jouanne’s earliest. “Breakthroughs are almost always born of failures,” she says.

Her breakthrough was to conceive of a device that has just two main components. In the most recent prototypes, a thick coil of copper wire is inside the first component, which is anchored to the seafloor. The second component is a magnet attached to a float that moves up and down freely with the waves. As the magnet is heaved by the waves, its magnetic field moves along the stationary coil of copper wire. This motion induces a current in the wire—electricity. It’s that simple.

By early 2005, von Jouanne had engineered one of her prototypes and wanted to test whether it was waterproof. She hauled the wave energy converter to her basement, into a flume that circulates water to let her swim in place. Her daughter Sydney, then 6, sat on the prototype, much as a seal might cling to a real buoy. It floated.

Next she phoned a nearby wave pool, where people go to play in simulated waves.

“Do you rent out your pool?” she said.

“For how many people?” the attendant asked.

“Not many people—one wave energy buoy.”

The park donated two early mornings to her venture. Von Jouanne anchored the machine with ten 45-pound weights from a health club. It performed well in the playful waves, bobbing up and down without sinking.

Then came the real test, at one of the longest wave simulators in North America.

At the west end of the leafy Oregon State University campus, past the scholarly red-brick buildings, is a massive T-shaped steel shed in a giant paved lot. Though the building is 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean and well beyond the reach of killer tidal waves, a blue and white metal sign at its entrance says “Entering Tsunami Hazard Zone.”

When von Jouanne first brought a buoy to test in the 342-foot-long concrete flume at Oregon State’s Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, “things didn’t go as planned,” says Dan Cox, the facility’s director, with a laugh. Von Jouanne and co-workers plopped the buoy in the 15-foot-deep channel and buffeted it with two-, three- and four-foot waves. The first five-foot wave tipped it over.

“We had a ballast problem,” von Jouanne says somewhat sheepishly. She goes on, “We’re electrical engineers, and we really needed more help from ocean engineers, but to get them we needed more funding, and to get more funding we needed to show some success.”

Von Jouanne kept refining her buoys. A small group watched as a five-foot wave headed for one of her latest versions. As the buoy lifted with the surge, a 40-watt light bulb on top of it, powered by wave energy, lighted up. “We all cheered,” Cox recalls.

Route 20 winds from Oregon State to the coast though cedar and fir trees, following the Yaquina River. Near the mouth of the river is a sandy spit with low buildings decorated with oyster shells and gnarly driftwood. Breezes set halyards from the nearby marina clanking against metal masts. This is the home of Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, devoted to research about marine ecosystems and ocean energy.

George Boehlert, a marine scientist and director of the center, looks out of his office at a field of undulating sea grass. “What we know now is what we don’t know,” says Boehlert, whose dirty blond curls resemble ocean waves. “Ocean energy is a fast-moving field and environmental researchers have a lot of questions.”

For instance, the buoys absorb energy from waves, reducing their size and power. Would shrunken swells affect sand movement and currents near shore, perhaps contributing to erosion?

Buoys, as well as the power cables that would connect to the electrical grid on-shore, emit electromagnetic fields. And mooring cables would thrum in the currents, like a guitar string. Might these disturbances confuse whales, sharks, dolphins, salmon, rays, crabs and other marine animals that use electromagnetism and sound for feeding, mating or navigation?

Would birds collide with the buoys or turtles become entangled in the cables?

Would anchors create artificial reefs that attract fish not normally found in that habitat?

Would deploying, maintaining and removing buoys disturb the seafloor or otherwise change the ocean environment?

“I want to know the answers to these questions, too,” von Jouanne says. “The last thing I want to do is harm the ocean and its beautiful creatures.” To study the environmental risks and allow wave energy engineers to test their inventions, she and colleagues at Oregon State, including Boehlert, are building a floating test berth nearby. It is scheduled to open next year and at its center will be a buoy full of instruments to collect data on how well wave energy converters are performing.

The test berth is part of a massive effort to move wave energy out of the lab and onto the electrical power grid. Through a new Energy Department-funded national marine renewable energy center, researchers from all over the country will have the chance to refine their inventions in the WESRF energy lab, test them in the Hinsdale wave flume and perfect them in the ocean. “This is what we need to do to fully explore wave energy as part of a renewable energy portfolio, for the state, the nation and the world,” von Jouanne says.

Boehlert and others say that even if wave energy has some local environmental impacts, it would likely be far less harmful than coal- and oil-fired power plants. “The effects of continuing to pump carbon into the atmosphere could be much worse for marine life than buoys bobbing in the waves,” he says. “We want ocean energy to work.”

Von Jouanne recently towed her best-performing buoy—her 11th prototype—out through Yaquina Bay and one and a half miles offshore. The buoy, which resembles a giant yellow flying saucer with a black tube sticking through the middle, was anchored in 140 feet of water. For five days it rose and fell with swells and generated around 10 kilowatts of power. In the next two to three years, Columbia Power Technologies, a renewable energy company that has supported von Jouanne’s research, plans to install a buoy generating between 100 and 500 kilowatts of electricity in the test berth off the coast of Oregon. See video of the device here.

“A few years ago,” Cox says of von Jouanne, “she was working on a shoestring. Now she has government getting behind her work and companies knocking at her door. That’s incredibly fast advancement that bodes well for the future of wave energy.”

Another of Von Jouanne’s inventions, the first of its kind, is a machine that tests wave energy converters without having to get them wet. A prototype buoy is secured inside a metal carriage that mimics the up-and-down motion of ocean waves. Electrical equipment monitors the power the buoy generates. The test bed looks like an elevator car in the middle of her lab.

Wave energy researchers from other institutions will be welcome to use von Jouanne’s test bed, but at the moment, it holds one of her own energy-converter buoys. A student sitting at a nearby computer commands the device to simulate waves 1 meter high traveling 0.6 meters per second with 6-second intervals between wave peaks.

“That’s a small summer wave,” von Jouanne says.

The machine hums, lurches and heaves like an amusement park ride.

As the buoy moves up and down, a gauge registers the juice it produces. The needle moves. One kilowatt, two, then three.

“That’s enough to power two houses,” says von Jouanne.

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