In December of 2016, the Energy Department announced up to $35 million in funding for the construction of PacWave, formally known as the Pacific Marine Energy Center, South Energy Test Site. In anticipation of this state-of-the-art wave energy test facility becoming operational 2021–2022, the Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) is engaging stakeholders involved in the PacWave project and the broader marine energy community. These discussions offer different perspectives on the significance of the facility's development to the U.S. marine energy industry as well as Oregon's coastal economy. Miles Hall, WPTO's Stakeholder Engagement Specialist, recently sat down with Carl Barrett of 3U Technologies, an international business consulting and engineering company based in Conroe, Texas. 3U is leading the design and routing of the cables that will transmit electricity and performance data of wave energy converters (WECs) to PacWave's onshore Utility Connection and Monitoring Facility (UCMF).
What experience does 3U Technologies bring to PacWave?
The name 3U stands for underground, under water, and under ice—spaces that typically require expertise within extreme environments. Our 12-employee consulting organization's history is rooted in the nuts and bolts of installing and burying cables, designing cable routes, and installing landing sites where cables connect onshore. We engage with a number of different industries ranging from telecommunications support to offshore marine energy, as well as remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and autonomously operated vehicle (AUV) design and operation.
What is 3U's role on the PacWave project?
3U leads the design and routing of the underwater and underground cables that will transmit electricity and performance data of wave energy converters (WECs) to the onshore Utility Connection and Monitoring Facility (UCMF). The process to transmit electricity from WECs six nautical miles offshore to the local onshore utility grid begins with connecting each WEC with what is known as an umbilical cable. This cable transmits WEC-generated power to subsea transmission cables buried approximately three to six feet under the seafloor. These cables will attach onshore at Driftwood State Park through beach manholes—points where subsea cables end and terrestrial, onshore cables begin. The terrestrial cables will be buried along a route that links to the UCMF to transmit electricity to the local grid (Central Lincoln People's Utility District) and provide device data for analysis and evaluation. As we will have four different test berths, we will replicate this process four different times for each WEC. We will also have an additional auxiliary cable at the site for environmental condition monitoring with the capacity to provide power for other applications in the future such as a charging station for a ROV.
How will you know where to bury the subsea and terrestrial cables?
The location of our subsea cables will be heavily informed by a series of marine surveys focused on analyzing the seafloor characteristics. The survey results will help define optimal pathways for us to bury the cables to minimize potential cable damage and to have as little environmental impact as possible. We have also been in contact with a range of stakeholders including landowners, the Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon State Parks and Recreation, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to get the necessary permissions for the offshore and onshore cable routes.
What was the driving motivator to get into renewable energy-based cable installation?
Since the company's founding in 1998, we have found our niche working with growing industries and applications like the renewable energy field. Through our previous work with PacWave's northern test site (formally known as PMEC-NETS), we have a track record of success with wave and tidal applications. Since we first transitioned our focus toward renewable energy around 2010, we have found that our approaches are similar to how we have engaged with other industries. As with telecommunications cabling, you must do your due diligence in surveying the environment you are placing the cables in, and you need to be precise with the tooling, timing, and techniques necessary to bury, connect, and protect the cables for different types of surroundings. One of the only major differences is that telecom cables are typically direct current (DC) powered systems, where the electric current is flowing in one direction; most renewable applications are higher powered and operate with an alternating current (AC) setup where electricity reverses direction based on the electrical frequency.
What kinds of challenges have you encountered so far?
Budgeting is always interesting to work through, especially with a site like PacWave where it is the first of its kind in the United States. The marine energy industry is still developing and is not yet backed by any large, commercial entity, so we must be especially precise in the execution of our work. PacWave is also technically complex with the quantity of cables we plan to install in close proximity to each other. We need to be accurate in allocating space for the cables to be laid, which are already being driven through fairly narrow routes. Normally, we have only had to deal with one cable at a time.
Another challenge is in the limitations of the site itself. Acquiring easements (rights to cross or use portions of property) along the space where the cables will be installed from landowners and other local organizations is something that the entire project team takes very seriously. Our pathway to the UCMF also leads under Highway 101, a major route used by visitors along the Oregon coast. The project team has done significant work in coordinating with local organizations and landowners to make sure that the drilling, installation, and ultimate construction will be done with as minimal impact on the surrounding area as possible. Our goal will be to prevent Highway 101 traffic from being shut down during any portion of this process.
From your perspective, what are the primary benefits of the site?
While the location is an initial challenge for us in setting up the test site, it is also what makes PacWave so unique. The Pacific Ocean is a fantastic location to test both the performance of WECs as well as how they withstand an incredibly energetic wave environment. You must also consider the economic impact of establishing the test site in a small community like Newport. Wave energy projects bring diversity to the local economy in terms of the support that will be needed for developers, who will require local options for a variety of project needs like cost-effectively transporting equipment. There is a case to develop local onshore infrastructure and manufacturing facilities as well as marine support services through installation and ongoing site operations.
How do you see PacWave influencing the future of the marine industry?
It boils down to developers using the test site to prove out the performances of their devices. Europe's success with offshore wind growth is a good example of where the marine energy industry can be if enough developers are successful in testing and deploying their devices. We've also talked about the services that developers can offer for smaller scale communities where resources are scarce. There is a lot of potential, especially now with some projects up in Alaska, where marine energy can provide lower cost energy solutions while also presenting a potential economic opportunity for local job growth.