Big Wave Surfers And Onlookers Flock To Oahu's North Shore For Large Swells

Thank your lucky stars, Australia. Ocean Power Technologies (OPT) left town before too much damage could be done.

Meanwhile, a message to U.S. wave energy fans: Don’t lose faith. Oregon, which also suffered a big OPT disappointment, seems to be bouncing back just fine.

First the Australia story: OPT last week pulled the plug on a planned Victoria wave energy array just five months after partner Lockheed Martin put out a press release heralding its imminent development as  “the world’s largest wave energy project,” and less than four months after OPT announced the project had received A$5 million (US$4.7 million) in funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

That was the first tranche in a A$66.5 million grant that ARENA had pledged for the 62.5-megawatt array. OPT said the money will be paid back, but skepticism might be in order, given OPT’s history of making optimistic statements that later unravel. This much we know: It’s a messy situation back at OPT headquarters in Pennington, New Jersey. On June 9, then-CEO Charles Dunleavy was fired “for cause” and OPT’s board of directors launched an internal investigation into the Australia deal. Shareholder lawsuits quickly followed.

None of this was a huge surprise to wave energy backers in Oregon, who in their quest to claim national leadership in the industry danced with OPT for years – and even put out for them, to the tune of $436,000 in grants and contracts from the state-backed Oregon Wave Energy Trust (OWET). A long-planned project off Reedsport seemed on the precipice of becoming reality in September 2012, but ran aground amid technology and financing troubles. Finally, this spring, OPT gave up on Reedsport, dealing OWET a PR blow.

But OWET argues Oregon got more than a fair return on its investment in OPT – some $10 million spent by the company in the state, important research, and valuable insight into how to beat through the regulatory thickets.

This much is definitely true: OPT’s downfall is opening up the spotlight for nimble U.S. companies whose strategies and technologies might actually be better bets than OPT’s behemoth and complex PowerBuoys.

Companies such as M3, a scrappy enterprise with a mid-shore device that Mike Morrow has been working on for years while keeping his day job at Hewlett-Packard. The M3 system, which sits on the sea floor and takes advantage of water pressure changes as waves roll by to force air through a turbine, will be tested this summer a mile offshore at Camp Rilea, in waters designated by the state for possible renewable energy development.

Or companies such as Columbia Power Technologies. Its buoy technology started out a lot like OPT’s, looking to produce energy by capturing the up-and-down motion of waves. But when lab tests revealed paltry power production, the design shifted. More lab testing and sophisticated computer modeling – a strategy to keep expenses down – as well as a small-scale run in Puget Sound resulted in yet more refinements. This slowed down the startup’s development pace – in a 2012 Forbes article, CEO Reenst Lesemann had talked of deploying a full-scale model in 2013. But Lesemann now says the extra work was worth it, delivering a design that checks off three boxes necessary for viability: survivable, cost effective and low-impact. A full-scale device will be built before the end of 2015, Lesemann says, and should be tested in 2016.

M3 and Columbia Power Technologies are both based in Oregon (and have also received support from OWET). Another company with Oregon ties is Resolute Marine Energy – it’s based in Boston, but plans to come to Oregon for testing next year, at Camp Rilea like M3.

In addition to the Oregon test run, Resolute Marine Energy is scheming to do a demonstration project in Alaska, which makes good sense: While OPT talked boldly of delivering power at a levelized cost of energy around 15 cents per kilowatt-hour and doing it on a big scale, Resolute Marine Energy puts its prospective LCOE at perhaps 30 cents – high by conventional standards, but a potential bargain in towns like Yakutat, Alaska, where energy is north of a half-buck per kWh. Even a small contribution from wave energy could make a big difference there.

It’s that kind of picking a spot and finding a niche that will be necessary for wave energy, bound to be expensive in its early iterations, to make its first inroads.

So, yes, OPT has given the U.S. wave energy industry a bit of a black eye – but maybe now other contenders will get a chance to step into the ring.