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Wave energy buoy plunges to ocean floor
By Winston Ross
Published: Thursday, November 1, 2007
NEWPORT — A 72-foot-tall wave energy buoy is sitting at the bottom of the ocean floor today — all 35 tons of it — after the $2 million contraption leaked, filled with water and sank.
It will remain there, 2½ miles off of Agate Beach, until next spring.
A spokesman for the buoy’s owner, British Columbia-based Finavera Renewables Inc., said the experimental device already has done its job collecting data over the past two months, and the steel tube would have been cut into scrap anyway, once it was removed from the water.
That isn’t going to happen anytime soon, however. The waves are too high to remove the buoy safely, and with winter looming, the seas won’t settle down before spring, said Michael Clark, Finavera’s spokesman.
“The loss is bad publicity,” Clark said. “We would not have liked this to happen, but what we want people to take away from it is that it’s not going to impact the development of this technology, and getting it to a commercial stage.”
Having finished gathering the data it needed, the buoy, which is 12 feet in diameter, was scheduled to be pulled out of the water this month. But last Friday it started experiencing “buoyancy issues,” Clark said. Water was leaking into the device, and the bilge pump inside it — installed specifically to handle leakage — failed. By midday Saturday, the buoy was 110 feet below sea level. The company has since removed the anchor and cables that had tethered it in place.
The tube is equipped with a rubberized pump that takes in seawater, causing a piston inside it to move up and down, generating hydraulic electricity. Clark said he’s not sure why it leaked, and that there’s no way to tell until it’s back out of the water. The buoy was collecting data on how much energy it could generate.
“It was a prototype,” Clark said, “and issues arise with prototypes sometimes. This is not going to be the device we would use in a commercial wave project, which clearly would have gone through a lot more testing, including survivability tests.”
Clark said the sunken buoy isn’t a navigation hazard — it’s on its side, at the bottom of the ocean, and was placed away from popular fishing grounds so that it wouldn’t interfere with boats.
“There’s absolutely no risk of any environmental damage,” Clark added. “It’s not moving at all, and there are no hydraulic oils in it.”
To remove it, crews need three days of good weather and small seas, Clark said. That may not happen until next year.
“We got all the data we need out of it,” Clark said. “That aspect was a success, from our point of view.”
But the sinking may add fodder to an increasingly wary group of fishermen and residents along the Oregon Coast concerned that networks of wave energy buoys could affect sensitive marine ecology areas and be difficult to maintain.
“It’s eye-opening, really,” said Gus Gates, a member of the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, which has been monitoring wave energy’s progress in recent months. “They should be required to get that out of there. It’s a big chunk of trash in our ocean.”
Gregg Kleiner, a spokesman for Oregon State University, said he didn’t think the sinking would make it harder to sell the public on wave energy, noting that the newness of the technology is bound to mean failed prototypes.
“This is wave energy; it’s a hostile environment out there,” Kleiner said. “That’s what research is about. You develop a prototype and learn from your mistakes.”