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Pacific Northwest Ocean Energy Firms Net DOE Cash

Oregon has pulled back on its investment in ocean energy, but for now, at least, funding from the U.S. Department of Energy continues to flow to the Pacific Northwest.

The DOE on Monday announced contract awards totaling “up to $10.5 million” for projects by six ocean energy players, three of which are headquartered in or have significant operations in the region: Columbia Power Technologies, Oscilla Power and M3 Wave.

The individual award amounts weren’t disclosed and the companies will need to negotiate project terms with the DOE in the coming weeks. However, based on the earlier DOE funding opportunity announcement, it looks like Columbia Power Technologies is in line to receive $400,000 in the first phase of its project, with an additional $3.75 million possible in a second phase, while Oscilla and M3 are due to get $600,000 apiece for their projects.

An early version of the Columbia Power Technologies wave energy converter. Image courtesy the company.

An early version of the Columbia Power Technologies wave energy converter. Image courtesy the company.

Columbia Power is headquartered in Charlottesville, Virginia, but its product development team — a half-dozen engineers with deep Oregon State University connections — is in Corvallis. The company tested a small-scale prototype in Puget Sound in 2011 and 2012, and with $3 million from the Naval Facilities and Engineering Command, is due to try out a grid-connected, utility-scale version of its StingRAY device at a Navy test site in Hawaii in 2016.

From 2008 through the 2014 fiscal year, Columbia Power received project funding from the DOE’s Wind and Water Power Technologies Office totaling $7.5 million, and got $800,000 in grants through the federal government’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

The new project backed by the DOE is aimed at making it easier and less expensive to install and recover the StingRAY device, which bobs at the ocean’s surface and uses forward and aft floats to absorb the energy of waves.

Seattle-based Oscilla uses a device that resides atop the swells in deep water, as well. But it generates power in a very different way, taking advantage of an effect called magnetostriction, caused by the constantly changing tension in the device’s tethers, to produce an electrical current. The company has received four SBIR awards totaling nearly $1.8 million, and in August said it had been awarded a £500,000 contract by Scotland’s wave energy development agency to improve its power takeoff system.

The DOE said Oscilla will use the new award to “optimize the device’s storm-survival configurations, which will decrease the loads the device experiences during extreme conditions, thus lowering the resulting cost of energy.”

For M3, the new award would represent a big infusion for what has been a minimally funded effort — until now, it had received about $400,000 from the state of Oregon and $240,000 from the DOE, and founders Mike Morrow and Mike Delos-Reyes have retained their day jobs as engineers at Hewlett-Packard.

M3's Mike Morrow in a screen grab from a recent Weather Channel feature on the company.

M3’s Mike Morrow in a screen grab from a recent Weather Channel feature on the company.

In an interview, Morrow wasn’t sure how the new backing might change that situation, and said ocean energy continues to be underfunded in the United States. Still, he said the award was a big boost that would “definitely help us do a lot of important work” in refining M3’s technology, which is based on a concept Morrow and Delos-Reyes came up with in 1991 while students at Oregon State University.

Unlike the other devices, the M3 wave energy converter is submerged in the water. Pressure changes from passing waves deflate an air bladder at one end of the device, pushing air through a column to a bladder at the other end. The flowing air, back and forth, turns a bidirectional turbine at the center of the column.

A one-fifth scale version of the device was tested for a few weeks off Camp Rilea in September 2014. Though successful, the test revealed potential issues with shifting sediment on the ocean floor. The new project “will explore ways to minimize effects of sediment transport,” the DOE said.

M3 is also a competitor for the DOE-sponsored Wave Energy Prize, which is searching for “game-changing performance enhancements” and offering $1.5 million to the grand prize winner. A field of 92 was narrowed to 20 in August and finalists are to be announced in March. But first, early next month, the Salem-based M3 will take a 1/50th-scale version of its new NEXUS model to Michigan for wave-tank testing as part of the contest. Oscilla Power is also in the competition, and will test its small-scale model in Maine next month.