Tom Ranken: The Prospects for Ocean Energy

Cleantech West Sound, along with the WCTA, sponsored a two-day conference on Ocean Energy:  Deep Water Wind and an Ocean Energy Economy in Bremerton.  WCTA Executive Committee member Jon Kroman, with his compatriots, did an excellent job in bringing in interested parties from nearly every corner of the nation.  I was asked to summarize the conference at the end.

US Congressman Norm Dicks opened the conference stating “The potential is great, the need is real, and the problem needs to be solved.”  His colleague, Jay Inslee, via video, was in agreement:  We “need to get devices in the water.”

Ocean energy faces a lot of potential—and a number of challenges.  During the course of the two days we heard from speakers that brought up a large number of both.

There are good reasons to pursue ocean energy efforts in Washington and the Pacific Northwest.

  • The need for new, renewable energy resources is significant.
  • The potential of ocean energy resources (thermal, off-shore wind, and wave) is nearly limitless.
  • The military, which is strongly represented in Washington, will likely be a catalyst.
  • We have an export tradition that can help develop markets.
  • We have strong research institutions.
  • We have a strong engineering capacity.

Bill Hurley of Glosten noted that we have:

  • A history of completing large marine projects,
  • Major marine construction firms;
  • Shipyards and fabricators;
  • Oceanographic research expertise;
  • Materials and transportation infrastructure; and
  • Fabrication and assembly capacity.

It is clear that this is an early stage technology, in many ways.  In fact, there are no sites in the state that are actively generating power, even on a test basis.  There is a paucity of real data…and a lot of concerns.

Speakers noted a number of questions—all of which raised legitimate concerns which need to be addressed.

  • Can ocean energy be financed in the Northwest?
  • Can ocean energy be developed to the point that it is cost-effective relative to competing technologies?
  • Can the technology be improved?
  • Are the environmental costs too high?
  • Are the social and economic costs too high?
  • Can we master the production and manufacturing challenges including siting, design, maintenance, etc.?
  • Will the public support it?
  • Can we develop a rational regulatory scheme?

This last point deserves some additional thoughts.

First, as with most new technologies, developing a rational regulatory framework is a challenge.  We are dealing with a process that potentially crosses many jurisdictional lines (local, state, federal, tribal, international) that requires a lot of regulatory parties to work together—or set up redundant, time consuming and costly procedures to secure permits.  Additionally, ocean energy efforts will require a large number of complex disciplines to coordinate: engineering, fishing, environment, energy production and transmission, materials, public input, and defense—to name a few.  So regulation is not without enormous challenges to get it right.

Second, we have a paucity of data.  As Rich Chwaszcaewski of SAIC noted, “Until you test it, you don’t know anything.”  It appears to me that our concerns have hamstrung efforts—to the point where we can’t even do experimentation.  Craig Collar of SnoPUD told the conference that the tidal energy testing device that they have been working on has been in development for five years—and will require several more.  Most of that time is non-technical—permitting, public input, etc.  We need to get devices in the water—on a test basis—so we can determine the answers to these questions with real data.

Third, the competition is leaving us in the dust.  Europe is developing these resources.  Maine has a permitting process that allows test devices to be approved in 60 days.  My guess is that efforts in China would require even less time.  If we want to be in the game, we need to get in the game.  Permitting processes that require a decade of process are ensuring that we will not be players.

You can’t be pro-science and against experimentation.

One of the key takeaways from the conference presentations is that ocean energy and wind, in particular, is complementary to existing operations.  John Schaad of BPA pointed out that by injecting power from the west, it helps relieve operating constraints (stability, voltage control and such) that allow more power from all sources to use the north/south transmission corridors.

Paul Manson, a wind power and merchant transmission line developer in Vancouver, BC, pointed out that Pacific Ocean winds tend to blow the most at the times when Columbia gorge winds are at their least and visa versa.  This in effect, makes wind power in Washington State look more like baseload power–meaning it can be relied upon more and requires less back up generation, making the combined sources cheaper than each alone.

Two final thoughts came to my mind.

First, if we wish to endeavor to develop this technology, we should be mindful of ways that we can do so—while developing local jobs.  It is not acceptable to import technology, products, and services from elsewhere, write a check, and call it good.  It isn’t.

In addition, several speakers said that they weren’t concerned about being behind as a region.  First movers don’t always become market leaders, they argued; it is better to be second.  I suspect that on a company level they may be right.  In fact, that notion is consistent with the writing s of Geoffrey Moore in Crossing the Chasm.  But, I suspect that thinkers like Michael Porter would argue that it is not true for regions.  Even if the first mover companies fail, their regions will benefit from the development of know-how, intellectual property, trained workforces and expertise, and the spinoffs that first movers are likely to generate.  If a region desires to be a player in a new technology, it shouldn’t be a laggard.

Finally, the conference took place on the twentieth anniversary of Magic Johnson’s announcement that he had the HIV virus.  This should serve as a reminder to us that technology is a powerful force.  Just as technology has saved this great athlete from what was once a certain death sentence for the past two decades, research is likely to significantly impact on the problems of ocean energy over time.  What we see today will bear little resemblance to the realities of today.

We have an opportunity to develop what could be a powerful new technology in our regions.  We should endeavor to make good on it.

–Tom Ranken