“I’m always in the wrong place at the right time,” Reenst Lesemann says reflecting on his East Coast origin. He commutes regularly from Virginia to Oregon for his position as the vice president of business development at Corvallis-based Columbia Power Technologies.
Since its founding in 2005, Columbia Power has developed the Manta Wave Converter, a 20-meter diameter wave energy absorber named after its resemblance to a manta ray’s fins that is quietly becoming a key player in the next generation of alternative energy production. Essentially a buoy, the device sits approximately one mile offshore where it captures the energy of ocean waves and then conducts it through pipes beneath the sea floor. Columbia Power hopes to commercialize these buoys within the decade.
“Wave energy is a resource that is consistent, reliable and predictable,” Lesemann says, “which means that it can be scheduled and depended upon.”
Unlike sunlight, waves are available twenty-four hours a day and are easily traced by satellites several days in advance. They are 840 times denser than gusts of wind, so they yield more energy per square meter. Scientists on both coasts agree that waves on the West Coast are the strongest and most consistent for harvesting energy.
Columbia Power partners with Oregon State University for research and development of the Manta. “OSU’s role is to support commercialization of this device, and our emphasis is on evaluation,” says Professor Annette von Jouanne. The university has established testing facilities called Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center (NNMREC). Before the device can be sold in the market, it must pass a battery of standardized testing at NNMREC for its power conversion abilities, design, durability and environmental impact. The Manta is still in the thick of the multiyear testing process and there are vital concerns from fishing industry groups.
While the Manta has been in testing, wave energy passed a national milestone. In August, Oregon received the first license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for Oregon Power Technology’s ten-buoy commercial-scale wave power project at Reedsport.
“OPT has the most evolved of wave power technologies,“ says Justin Klure, a stakeholder specialist for wave energy technology from Pacific Energy Ventures. “Columbia Power Technologies is further down on the commercialization scale [than OPT], but they have a very promising technology. They represent another dozen companies that are in that second tier of technology testing devices.” Klure expects Columbia Power to catch up to OPT’s developments within a year or so.
A young field and one with a body of solutions that range from tall and thin to short and wide, wave energy is also an ecological unknown. The Manta is secured to the shoreline by cables that are potentially damaging to marine life. The sounds of their operation might interfere with whales’ underwater acoustics, or even attract ocean species into danger zones. These issues only scratch the surface of ecological considerations. In a workshop to determine Manta’s ecological effects, the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, a state lottery-funded nonprofit, determined “the lack of information and data describing the nature of the wave energy technologies, and the incomplete understanding of marine resources and coastal zone dynamics, introduce substantial uncertainty.”
This year, Columbia Power Technologies is one of sixteen finalists in the Cleantech Open, the largest cleantech business competition with $1 million in prizes. The team will present its business plan for commercializing the device to a panel of investors in Seattle. Grand prize winners will be named November 17 and receive $250,000 in cash and business development services. Columbia hopes to have wave buoys generating power by 2012.
“What is exciting to us is that we have the opportunity to create an Oregon-based company that will be a worldwide leader in the renewable resource industry,” Lesemann said.