Wave energy has great promise, but is not a big producer at this point because the technology is just not viable.

That may soon change as one of the first public wave energy testing systems in the United States began operation this week off the Oregon coast near Newport, and will allow private industry or researchers to test new technology that may help advance this type of sustainable energy.

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The Ocean Sentinel is a $1.5 million device developed by the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center (NNMREC), at Oregon State University. It’s a major step forward for the future of wave energy, and should do its first testing within days. The first devices is the “WetNZ” developed by private industry.

The need for this mobile wave energy test facility has been around for years, experts said, and companies and academic researchers will use it to develop wave energy technology, measure and understand the wave resource, and study the energy output and other important issues.

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“The Ocean Sentinel will provide a standardized, accurate system to compare various wave energy technologies, including systems that may be better for one type of wave situation or another,” said Sean Moran, ocean test facilities manager with NNMREC.

“We have to find out more about which technologies work best, in what conditions, and what environmental impacts there may be,” Moran said. “We’re not assuming anything. We’re first trying to answer the question, ‘Is this a good idea or not?’ And if some technology doesn’t work as well, we want to find that out quickly, and cheaply, and the Ocean Sentinel will help us do that.”

Unlike some alternative energy forms such as wind energy, it’s probable that no one technology will dominate the wave energy field. Some systems may work better in low wave settings, others with a more powerful resource. The Ocean Sentinel will be able to measure wave amplitude, device energy output, ocean currents, wind speeds, extremes of wave height and other data.

The challenges at hand, Moran said, are huge.

“We’re still trying to figure out what will happen when some of these devices have to stand up to 50-foot waves,” Moran said. “The ocean environment is very challenging, especially off Oregon where we have such a powerful wave energy resource.”

The one-square-mile site where the Ocean Sentinel will operate, about two miles northwest of Yaquina Head, has been carefully studied, both for its physical and biological characteristics. A large part of the NNMREC program is studying potential environmental impacts, whether they might come from electromagnetic fields, changes in acoustics, or other factors. They will also closely monitor any changes in sediments, invertebrates or fish.

Wave energy is a technology still in its infancy. It can use large buoys that move up and down in ocean swells, or other technologies, to produce large and sustainable supplies of electricity.

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