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Friday, September 7, 2012

Project Aims To Harness The Power Of Waves

Thomas Patterson for The New York Times
A computer-equipped buoy, 103 feet long and ultimately weighing 260 tons, being assembled and tested in Vancouver, Wash.

 From Kirk Johnson at The New York Times

PORTLAND, Ore. — About 15 years ago, this environmentally conscious state with a fir tree on its license plates began pushing the idea of making renewable energy from the ocean waves that bob and swell on the Pacific horizon. But then one of the first test-buoy generators, launched with great fanfare, promptly sank. It was not a good start.

But time and technology turned the page, and now the first commercially licensed grid-connected wave-energy device in the nation, designed by a New Jersey company, Ocean Power Technologies, is in its final weeks of testing before a planned launch in October. The federal permit for up to 10 generators came last month, enough, the company says, to power about 1,000 homes. When engineers are satisfied that everything is ready, a barge will carry the 260-ton pioneer to its anchoring spot about two and a half miles offshore near the city of Reedsport, on the central coast.

“All eyes are on the O.P.T. buoy,” said Jason Busch, the executive director of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, a nonprofit state-financed group that has spent $10 million in the last six years on scientific wave-energy research and grants, including more than $430,000 to Ocean Power Technologies alone. Making lots of electricity on the buoy and getting it to shore to turn on lights would be great, Mr. Busch said. Riding out the storm-tossed seas through winter? Priceless. “It has to survive,” he said.

Adding to the breath-holding nature of the moment, energy experts and state officials said, is that Oregon is also in the final stages of a long-term coastal mapping and planning project that is aiming to produce, by late this year or early next, a blueprint for where wave energy could be encouraged or discouraged based on potential conflicts with fishing, crabbing and other marine uses.

The project’s leader, Paul Klarin, said wave technology is so new, compared to, say, wind energy, that the designs are like a curiosity shop — all over the place in creative thinking about how to get the energy contained in a wave into a wire in a way that is cost-effective and efficient.

“Some are on the seabed on the ocean floor, some are in the water column, some are sitting on the surface, some project up from the surface into the atmosphere, like wind — many different sizes, many different forms, many different footprints,” said Mr. Klarin, the marine program coordinator at the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development. “There’s no one-size-fits-all kind of plan.”

Energy development groups around the world are closely watching what happens here, because success or failure with the first United States commercial license could affect the flow of private investment by bigger companies that have mostly stayed on the shore while smaller entrepreneurs struggled in the surf. Ocean Power Technologies also will be seeking money to build more generators.

“Wave energy is very expensive to develop, and they need to see that there is a potential worldwide,” said António Sarmento, a professor at Lisbon Technical University and the director of the Wave Energy Centre, a private nonprofit group based in Portugal. “In that sense, having the first commercial deployment in the U.S. is very, very positive.”

Here in Oregon, the momentum of research appears to be increasing. Last month, the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center — financed by the United States Department of Energy in collaboration with Oregon State University and the University of Washington — deployed one of the first public wave energy testing systems in the nation, called Ocean Sentinel, about two and a half hours from Portland, in Newport. The first device tested was a half-scale prototype from a New Zealand company.

Fishing industry lobbyists and lawyers worry that a surge of wave energy could repeat what happened when hydroelectricity came to the Pacific Northwest in a big way starting in the 1930s. Builders then did not think through the dense ecological web that nature had devised around the tens of millions of salmon — suddenly blocked from their inland spawning routes — that had over millenniums become a cornerstone species for everything from bears to birds.

“Our greatest concern is that they don’t do what they did with dams — put a lot of them in the ocean and then just stand back and see what happens,” said John Holloway, the secretary of Oregon Anglers, a political action committee for recreational fishing. “We’re advocating a go-slow approach.”

What has not changed is that the Pacific Northwest still has a siren song for wave-energy dreamers in the big, consistent rolling ocean swells that define offshore waters — and make many a boater seasick — from Northern California through Washington State.

“Wave energy is essentially an accumulation of wind energy,” Charles F. Dunleavy, the chief executive at Ocean Power Technologies, said in a telephone interview. In the northern Pacific, he said, consistent winds fuel consistent waves, and the distance they travel in their rolling line creates a huge area of wave energy, or fetch, that a bobbing buoy can capture. Other places with good fetch include some areas off the coasts of Western Europe and South America.

But the project also hinges on squeezing out the tiniest of incremental efficiencies in tapping the waves as they come. On the Ocean Power Technologies buoy, which looks like a giant cannon stuffed with electronics, company engineers pursued an insight that sailors have known in their sea legs since the days of Odysseus: every wave is different.

The onboard computer in each buoy, in communication with an array of small devices called wave riders that float farther out in the ocean, adapts, or “tunes” to each incoming wave, adjusting the way the giant internal shaft rides up and down as the swell passes through. The up-and-down motion of the shaft creates the electricity, which goes to shore through a seabed cable.

In a nod to environmental concerns, the buoy was redesigned to remove all hydraulic fluids, which some critics feared could contaminate the water in the event of an accident; rack-and-pinion gears now drive the mechanics. The three anchoring tethers, said Michael G. Kelly, the vice president of operations at Ocean Power Technologies, were also built to withstand a 100-year storm, but also with enough redundancies that even if two anchors failed the third would be enough to keep the buoy in place.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Detroit Trails: Eliza Howell Park Gets Makeover From Young Trail Blazers

Detroit Trails Eliza Howell
File Photo. A crew of Detroit teens construct a 24 foot wooden bridge over a Rouge River drainage canal. (Jhon Clark) 

Although the re-emergence of Detroit's wilderness has been the subject of a feature film, the story of its young urban trailblazers is much less well known.

This summer, a crew of Detroit youth restored and extended a woodland trail through an overgrown thicket in the city's Eliza Howell Park, an area that has developed a reputation as a hub for illicit activities, not to mention the site of a gruesome discovery earlier this year.

Their labor was part of a six-week summer high school youth employment program called the Detroit Conservation Leadership Corps (CLC). Along with building and maintaining trails, teenagers in the CLC also restore natural habitats and remove invasive species. This summer eight teams of approximately 10 teens carried out work in parks and neighborhoods around Detroit.

The program is made possible through a partnership between the Greening of Detroit, the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and Johnson Controls, Inc. Similar projects take place in Milwaukee, Wis., Baltimore, Md., as well as at international sites like China, Germany and Mexico.

Eliza Howell Park is located in Brightmoor, a sparsely-populated neighborhood in northwest Detroit. It's a place that some people associate with prostitution and other illicit activities. Earlier this summer police discovered skeletal human remains at the park. Neighbors think the bones were dumped there, but the news didn't help to improve the park's image.

Those who worked with the CLC project, however, hope their efforts will change the negative attitudes about Eliza Howell Park.

"We appreciate the fact that some people use the park for walking their dogs and hanging out with their kids." said Jhon Clark, one of two crew leaders who supervised the project. "We're trying to support them and to make it more acceptable and friendly."

The Eliza Howell Park crew certainly had their hands full this summer. Their work included cutting grass from a parking lot to the woods; laying down a wood chip path; widening a trail that had become impassable; creating a new path to the existing Eliza Howell Nature Trail; using downed logs to build "check steps" into a path to slow erosion and improve access; constructing a 24-foot wood bridge over a drainage ditch leading into the Rouge River; and building a sign to let others know about their project.

"The work was pretty intense, but we got it done," said Barri Tiggle, an 18-year crew member who will be attending Grand Valley State University this fall. "Physically, the toughest part I would have to say is getting up when it rains. The mud gets real thick so you have to walk up and try and not fall and not slide."

In addition to the work at Eliza Howell Park, the group also did some work for the local Dacosta Native Plant Garden -- removing non-native plants, turning tire tread marks into a trail and building a fence. Their efforts were supported by members of two local community groups, Friends of Eliza Howell Park and Neighbors Building Brightmoor, who assisted them with things like storing tools and helped them decide what work needed to be done.

Tiggle, who lives in the nearby Rosedale Park neighborhood, said that she had heard of, but never visited the park before her CLC experience. Now she hopes to bring her friends so they can see the results of her hard work.

"I think its a little brighter now. I see more people walking around with their dogs," she said. "I had a negative view of the park, but it kind of changed over time and now everything is just open and colorful."

CLC crews were also active in other parts of the city during this year's season, which ended Friday. Different teams engaged in invasive species removal and habitat restoration on Belle Isle; maintained and beautified plots at the Singing Tree community gardens; expanded acreage at the D-Town farm in Rouge Park; developed and maintained a mountain bike trail at Rouge Park with the Motor City Mountain Bike Association and Friends of Rouge Park; and worked with the Detroit Leadership Academy to develop and implement an outdoor classroom with material from the WARM training center's deconstruction warehouse. For more information about the program visit the Detroit CLC facebook page. To see more photos and video, check out their blog at