7 Projects Paving the Way for Ocean Power

What if we could tap the power of the ocean to produce electricity? Companies including Lockheed Martin (s lmt), Wavebob and OpenHydro are working on technologies to capture energy from waves, tides, currents and the ocean’s thermal gradients on a scale that could eventually make the sea a major contributor to the nation’s clean energy supply.

As Commerce Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco put it in a statement today, “There are many new and exciting renewable energy opportunities waiting for us in the ocean.” But the newness of this technology means these opportunities are also shrouded in uncertainty. How should siting proposals be evaluated? Will noise from ocean installations influence migratory marine animals? A round of federal grants totaling more than $4.2 million announced on Tuesday will support a crop of research projects seeking answers to these questions and more over the next three years. (An eighth project funded in this grant round will look at best practices for storing carbon dioxide under the ocean floor.)

The results could have lasting effects on the nascent market for these technologies as they move beyond the research and development stage to pursue permits for large-scale deployments, paving the way for new planning and evaluation processes. According to a report released earlier this month by the research firm Emerging Energy Research, “The global ocean energy sector is at a turning point,” with more than 45 wave and tidal prototypes slated for ocean testing in 2010 and 2011, up from only nine tested last year.

Despite its promise, however, to provide continuous electricity — a benefit that solar and wind don’t offer — development of so-called “hydrokinetic” technology (relating to the kinetic energy of moving fluid) has run into technical and fundraising difficulties. For example, the California Utilities Commission rejected a power purchase agreement from utility Pacific Gas & Electric (s PCG) to buy electricity from a project by Finavera Renewables, saying the technology was too unproven and costly.

So far, few studies have looked into the environmental impact of ocean and tidal power equipment worldwide. As researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington State explained recently, some of the limited studies have taken place outside the U.S., focusing on wildlife not commonly found in the estuaries and oceans hugging this country.

Here’s what the seven projects awarded funding today by the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for ocean energy research will be investigating:

1. Parametrix, an engineering, planning and environmental sciences firm in Auburn, Wash., scored $499,000 for a 2-year project using statistics to help determine how siting proposals for renewable ocean energy projects should be evaluated. The team will be using probabilistic statistics to integrate information from a range of sources in a variety of forms, including oceanographic and ecological data, stakeholder input, human use data and cumulative impacts.

2. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bioacoustics Research Program in Ithaca, N.Y., won a $499,000 grant for a 3-year project looking at how noise from offshore energy projects affects marine animals. More specifically, the lab plans to “measure, characterize and evaluate the influences of construction and operation noises,” of these installations on “acoustically active” migratory marine vertebrates that live in the project area seasonally.

3. University of Rhode Island plans to develop and test a set of protocols for collecting and comparing scientifically valid data about offshore renewable energy issues, and develop a “conceptual framework” for evaluating the cumulative environmental impact of offshore renewable energy development. The group won a grant of $745,000 over two years.

4. The University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Scientists in Seattle will be evaluating three technologies — echo sounders, acoustic cameras and multibeam sonar — for their ability to monitor animal densities at sites where hydrokinetic projects are proposed. The team, which scored a $746,000 grant over two years, plans to deploy instruments at the site of a tidal energy demo project proposed by the Snohomish Public Utility District, in Washington’s northern Admirality Inlet.

5. Pacific Energy Ventures, based in Portland, Ore., plans to build a framework for identifying, collecting and comparing environmental data that’s relevant to baseline studies, as well as monitoring of operational wave, tidal, and offshore wind projects on the West Coast. According to the project description, however, the tool will be portable to other regions and marine ecosystems and consistent with programs in Europe. The project has been awarded $499,000 in grant money over two years.

6. The University of Arkansas Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies in Fayetteville, Ark., plans to develop a system for designing the layout of an offshore facility and generating realistic visualizations of the project. The system will allow users to import geospatial data and define wave and light conditions, among other things. This project won a $497,000 grant over three years.

7. The University of Massachusetts’ Marine Renewable Energy Center in Dartmouth, Mass. plans to develop a roadmap for assessing spatial resources at offshore renewable energy sites. The group also plans to craft a plan for monitoring offshore wind and hydrokinetic energy resources once facilities are up and running. According to the project description, most of the evaluations in this study will use models and existing data, as well as field tests to look at specific survey technologies. The project won a $748,000 grant over two years.

Chart courtesy of Emerging Energy Research. Top photo courtesy of Flickr user Wonderlane. Lower photo courtesy of Wavebob.

For more research, check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):