Oh Buoy! Harvesting Wave Power on the Cheap

Columbia Power Technologies believes it has a better way to tap the power of ocean waves for clean energy: Good-bye steel turbines; hello fiberglass, a lighter-weight material that requires less maintenance. The five-year-old startup is now gearing up for the final small-scale test of its generator ahead of a full-scale demonstration project (up to 2 gigawatt-hours) planned for 2012 in Puget Sound, Reenst Lesemann, VP of business  development, tells us.

Columbia’s system also employs a rotary design, so energy can be captured from motion in four directions (up, down, side to side) rather than the usual two. In addition, it uses direct-drive systems, which the company says can boost efficiency and further reduce costs by eliminating gearboxes and hydraulics.

Of course, like any new technology, this one comes with uncertainty about how it will perform over the course of decades at large scale in a corrosive ocean environment. Hence, the need for the small-scale test and demonstration project.

Formed in 2005 as a division of the renewable energy investment firm Greenlight Energy Resources, Columbia’s mission is to develop and commercialize devices for harvesting wave energy off-shore using direct-drive, permanent-magnet generators. The company, which is based in Corvallis, Ore., licensed the basic technology for its system from Oregon State University and began its first in-water tests in 2007.

While Columbia’s upcoming test will use a prototype only 11.5 feet tall, the full-scale system is designed to be 80 feet tall. Most of the equipment sits under the water. Waves rotate “wings” around an axis at the top of the device, while a plate at the bottom provides resistance. “We call the device the ‘Manta’ because the motion of the two wings at the top tends to mimic that of a manta ray’s wings,” explained Lesemann.

At this point, the company is looking to prove what Lesemann summarized as “survivability and performance.” The grand vision is to have these buoys deployed between one and three miles from shore, aggregating electricity in a central pod on the ocean floor, then transmitting it to an onshore power grid.

Fiberglass, like steel, is a “well established, well understood structure for maritime vessels,” said Lesemann. “We saw with steel that you have to pull it out of the water, strip it and repaint,” said Lesemann. That maintenance isn’t necessary with fiberglass, he said, but it presents its own set of hurdles. “There are fewer partners that can make large, odd-shaped fiberglass pieces in remote locations,” said Lesemann.

Columbia, which now has 10 full-time employees and about twice as many people working as consultants, believes it has found the partners it needs to grow its wave energy business. Rather than developing projects, Columbia Power, at least at this early stage, aims to provide technology and manufacture the gear.

Columbia Power has received $8 million from the Navy and Department of Energy, and it has raised about $2 million from angel and strategic investors, as well as the founders’ own resources. By this time next year, said Lesemann, they hope to double the private investment.

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Images courtesy of Columbia Power Technologies