The state legislature has gutted funding for the organization that made Oregon the focal point for a nascent wave energy industry in the United States over the past eight years.
The state-backed Oregon Innovation Council, known as Oregon InC, had been set to hand over $1.5 million to the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, which received nearly $2 million in the 2013-15 budget and around $12 million total since 2007. But the legislative subcommittee that holds the purse strings came through with a mere $250,000 for OWET in its 2015-17 budget report.
Is it a death knell for the state’s ocean energy ambitions?
“It could be interpreted as a statement that Oregon is pulling back on ocean energy,” OWET Executive Director Jason Busch said in an interview this week. “But that would be wrong. We’re going to be limited in what we can do, but we’re still going to do everything we can to advance ocean energy’s future in Oregon, and we’re going to succeed.”
Ocean energy – which includes wave, tidal stream and, counterintuitively, even river energy – is mostly an afterthought in climate change and renewable energy circles, a distant hope at best, too not-ready, too expensive, obscured in the here and now by wind and solar.
But it’s long been viewed differently in Oregon.
Wave energy in particular has been seen as an opportunity, perhaps not for massive amounts of energy in the cheap-electricity state, but for jobs in the R&D, manufacturing and testing of devices that could be deployed fairly soon in places like Hawaii, Alaska, island nations and even Europe, where the high cost of energy gives wave an opening.
Busch said OWET can still perform meaningful work toward that vision, primarily by driving development of a regional organization in support of ocean energy, with Alaska, Washington, Hawaii and California – and even British Columbia – joining Oregon in the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust.
“Hawaii wants wave energy, Alaska wants hydrokinetic energy of all sorts, California is very interested – I’ve long thought that leveraging the region’s political and economic power would be the way to accelerate investment,” Busch said.
Busch is confident that even as most deployments ultimately go elsewhere, Oregon will be the place to design, build and test devices. He noted that of the three utility-scale deployments planned for a test center offshore from Marine Corps Base Hawaii Kaneohe Bay, at least two of the devices will be built in Oregon.
That’s just one sign of OWET’s success, Busch said. Another: $31.5 million in federal and private investment in ocean energy in the state.
But OWET took a hit when a widely publicized project it backed, a planned grid-connected array by the New Jersey-based company Ocean Power Technologies, off the coast at Reedsport, succumbed to technical and financial woes, leaving a giant wave energy converter sitting in a Portland shipyard, undeployed,
The Reedsport project might have produced only 1.5 megawatts of power at full capacity, but it also would have signaled progress in a way that legislators could comprehend. Instead, they saw what looked like failure.
The chance for a big win for Oregon is still possible, however – the U.S. Department of Energy is aiming to back a grid-connected wave energy test facility capable of plugging in several utility-scale devices and even arrays of devices. The Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center at Oregon State University is the frontrunner for the project in a face-off with a California proposal.
Will OWET’s budget bludgeoning send a signal to the DOE that Oregon is backing off on wave energy?
Busch said that was anyone’s guess, but added that he delivered a go-for-it-or-go-home message last week to the Oregon Coast Economic Summit [PDF], hosted by the Coast Caucus of the Oregon Legislature.
“I had one goal there – to get the state of Oregon to recognize the opportunity, to understand the benefits, and to understand how close we are to losing it if we do not speak as a common voice,” Busch said.
In practical terms, that could mean a commitment from the legislature in its short session next year to come up with the matching funding – at least $5 million, perhaps as much as $10 million – that the DOE would require from the winner of the test center.