Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Wave power put to the test in Monterey Bay

Kurtis Alexander - Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted: 12/09/2008 01:30:56 AM PST

The 60-foot Velocity motored out of Santa Cruz harbor Monday afternoon under mostly sunny skies. On deck was an apprehensive crew -- scientists with research group SRI International of Menlo Park, observers from the Department of Energy and financiers with the Tokyo-based Hyper Drive Corp.

As the boat began to bob up and down after clearing the breakwater, and the stomachs of those with weaker constitutions began to churn, the day's mission became all the more clear: to see the wave motion go to work making electricity.

The 62-year-old SRI International, which counts the invention of the computer mouse among its discoveries, was at sea to test its new wave-powered generator, a floating device that awaited the Velocity about a mile offshore and holds the promise, its inventors said, of bringing energy to land.

"There's only so much you can do in the lab. At some point, you have to put it out in the water," said Philip Von Guggenberg, the group's business director.

The ocean has become the latest frontier for a power industry hungry for alternatives.

Waves, say energy experts, have many advantages. They're constant and reliable, close to the highly populated coasts where power needs are greatest, and, unlike other sources of electricity such as solar, can be harnessed with very basic technology.

Two countries, Portugal and Scotland, have begun to commercialize wave power and several others are working
to catch up, including the United States, where several projects are in the pipeline.

"It's still a very open market," said Carolyn Elefant with the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition, the young industry's even younger trade group. "Even companies that are on the leading edge now and currently feeding power to the grid, we don't know in 10 or 15 years if they're going to be the winners in this race."

For researchers at SRI International, the strategy in a marketplace with no defined standard is to go simple.

The group's wave generator is designed to let waves move a bendable slab of rubber-like material and, by doing so, act much like a turbine and produce electricity. Today, it might just be a few watts, tomorrow, a small city.

"We like to say we can make electricity with something as simple as a rubber band," said Roy Kornbluh, principal research engineer for SRI International. The technology, he adds, avoids the more costly and error-prone wave systems that rely on pumps to push air, water or oil to generate power.

And so, amid light winds on the Monterey Bay and relatively calm surf, the Velocity pulled up to the much anticipated wave machine. Kornbluh and others aboard set their sights seaward.

On a roughly 10-foot-tall buoy, two levers moved with the rise and fall of the ocean, pushing accordian-looking rubbery material up and down through plastic columns.

"It's responding to the choppy waves and the longer waves," Kornbluh said.

In other words, success. At least for now.

Mikio Waki, chief technology officer of Hyper Drive, says the technology, which produced a relatively scant 20 joules per second -- enough to power a small lightbulb -- during its four-day debut, is at least five years away from being scaled up and commercially viable. And how the power will be transmitted, either sending electricity through underground cables or producing hydrogen from the generator that would run through a pipe, is yet to be determined.

But in an industry that energy experts say could supply 6.5 percent of the nation's total energy needs, there is still time to figure things out.

"The best way to extract the resource is still unclear," said Alejandro Moreno, a manager of water programs for the Department of Energy, who joined the crew of the Velocity to preview the nascent system. "But any technology that can minimize moving parts and components that might break will be at an advantage."
Contact Kurtis Alexander at 706-3267 or kalexander@santacruzsentinel.com.

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