Scrappy Oregon startup to test its wave-energy device this summer

Scrappy Oregon startup to test its wave-energy device this summer »Play Video
M3 Wave's CEO Mike Morrow stands in his backyard in front of a prototype wave-energy device similar to the one he plans to deploy for ocean testing at the end of August. Morrow runs his scrappy startup from his home in south Salem. Click the "Play Video" button to see more of his device and his homemade 1,500-gallon wave tank. (The video is narrated and edited by KATU Web Producer Steve Benham. Photography by KATU Photojournalist Gino Corridori.)

SALEM, Ore. – Out in the sprawling farmlands of south Salem there is a large shed adjacent to a house, and from this shed a scrappy Oregon startup hopes to dive into the mostly unexplored waters of wave energy this summer.

M3 Wave LLC's CEO, Mike Morrow, plans to deploy a unique wave-energy device off the coast of Oregon on or around Aug. 28, weather permitting. He and co-founder Mike Delos-Reyes invented it while students at Oregon State University in the early 1990s. His planned deployment comes after a New Jersey company's high-profile decision earlier this year to abandon its ambitious wave-energy park off the coast of Reedsport.
 
Ocean Power Technologies Inc. had planned to deploy a 260-ton, 130-foot test buoy as part of its broader plans to generate commercial electricity from an array of ocean-deployed buoys. But it ran out of money to fund the project, blaming the weather and insurmountable regulatory hurdles for its demise. It never deployed its single $3 million to $4 million buoy that was largely funded by taxpayers.

M3 Wave's technology is different. Instead of floating on the surface, it will sit on the bottom of the ocean, where it is hoped it can utilize wave motion to inflate and deflate air-filled bags and turn a turbine. Morrow says APEX, which stands for Automated Power Expeditionary, will be deployed at Camp Rilea near Astoria in 40 to 45 feet of water about a mile offshore.

Watch M3 Wave's CEO Mike Morrow explain how his technology works

The 5,000 pound device will be 30 feet long and eight and a half feet wide, Morrow says. It'll be small enough to haul on the highway on a trailer. The device he will deploy is still being constructed in Astoria and Portland, he says.

The deployment will last about three weeks, enough time for Morrow to find out how his technology handles the harsh ocean environment and how well it performs.

He will conduct visual inspections of his device with a ROV (remotely operated vehicle) and sonar scans. He will also monitor sediment levels and device shifting.

The device will generate electricity, but only a small amount. Morrow says he'll measure it but he won't send any ashore.

"We don't expect to get a huge amount, because it is a subscale device. It's about a 1/5th version. A full-scale device of that same design should make about 100 to 150 kilowatts," he says.

Morrow says he'll employ the service of the retired U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender, Ironwood, to haul his device to its deployment location. A crane on the deck of the tender will pick up the device and slowly lower it to the bottom of the ocean. Morrow will also enlist the help of Job Corps at Tongue Point near Astoria.

"They're going to learn how to deploy something of this size and scale, and then we're going to of course gain the experience of both their crew and other folks," Morrow says. "The nice thing about that is that it's a very collaborative effort with the local community, and we're really keen on engaging the community both for that as well as the fabrication."

Admittedly, Morrow's business doesn't look like much. A 1/6th scale model of his device sits parked in the grass in his backyard while cows munch away in a neighboring field, staring curiously at it. A large shed, which sits adjacent to his home, houses a self-made wave tank that he's used for small-scale tests.

Morrow placed that 1/6th model into the long wave flume at OSU's big Hinsdale Wave Tank in Corvallis in 2011 to get a sense of how it would perform.

"We ran a whole series of tests of simulated waves and scaled real-world waves," he says. "We also did survivability testing. We did simulated 30-, 40-foot waves crashing on top of the device, and it did great. It made power through all those conditions – never had a failure at all with the device."

The testing was conducted around one Christmas, so they used the little power the device generated to light a Christmas tree.

Watch M3 Wave's CEO Mike Morrow tell the story of how he and another OSU student used Dairy Queen spoons and plastic milk bags to invent their technology.

In that shed of his, Morrow has built his own 1,500-gallon wave tank, where he has done his own testing over the years with a 1/50th scale model device. It's a bit rusted, but he says since he's completed most of the initial tests, he doesn't use it much now. But on a recent visit, he had just received the ROV he will use during the deployment of his device and was practicing using it in his wave tank.

Morrow built that wave tank mostly with things he found lying around or had used for some other purpose in the past. And right now his company only has three or four employees. They have full-time jobs elsewhere and work on the project in their spare time and on vacations. Morrow's day job is as a senior engineer at Hewlett Packard.

He's proud of his scrappiness.

"We have a tendency to spend energy and money where it matters, and the other things we do with what we've got around – sort of scrappy style," he says. "But we do put the money where it matters like in wave gages, telemetry, data collection units, because that's really where the core of the scientific data comes from."

Unlike Ocean Power Technologies, which spent over $10 million for its Oregon project that went nowhere, Morrow says by the end of his deployment, he'll have spent about $660,000. Most of his project has been funded through the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, Oregon BEST and from the U.S. Department of Energy for some early work on the project. He says he's also received some private funding.

Like OPT, the goal is commercialization, but Morrow said ultimately he doesn't see deploying his devices for commercial use off the coast of Oregon. That's because Oregon's power is so cheap right now.

"I see this as really applicable technology for small island communities or isolated communities like in Alaskan villages and things that are shore based," he says.

He says commercialization is at least five to 10 years away. But for now, Oregon is a great place to build and test his devices.

"We're an Oregon company. We're all Oregon natives, and Oregon is a good place to do the testing," he says. "We have good access to good fabrication capabilities all up and down the valley and the coast. And of course, we've got the universities and that high-tech green sentiment that's sort of the Oregon experience."

Morrow has spent quite a bit of time talking to other ocean stakeholders, especially the state's Dungeness crab industry, which had big concerns with OPT’s plans. The main concern with these wave energy devices is the disruption of sensitive fishing grounds.

Morrow says he's worked with the crabbing industry to design his device so that it has the least impact on the ocean floor and will lessen the likelihood of fishing gear snagging upon his device.

"We've met with crabbers in the Warrenton and Astoria area several times, and it turns out that the fishermen and the crabbers are a great source of knowledge because they're one of the few people who operate regularly in these depths this time of year," Morrow says. "So they really can speak to what the challenges might be and actually our design reflects some of their inputs." 

He's also deploying his device after crabbing season and only for a short time.

For these reasons the crabbing industry is not too worried about M3's technology.

"He (Morrow) seems to have worked with everybody very carefully to make sure everything's good," says Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. "We appreciate that kind of developer that wants to work with the industry and usually things go very well for them because they do work with us."

Link says the industry is all for the testing of these devices, and they could be beneficial, but "we're just more worried that it's just in the test phases and to put a commercial facility out in the ocean with devices that may be in a year or two obsolete is just not a good idea."

He says the main concerns with OPT's project were that the buoys would have taken up a large area, which would have effectively cut off access to a large area of prime crab fishing.

"That was a huge concern for us – not to be able to use those grounds," Link says. "It was pretty much fencing off or cordoning off an area that couldn't be used anymore for fishing."
  
As for Morrow, after testing his device, he plans to show it off at the ninth annual Oregon Renewable Energy Conference near the end of September in Portland.

And then? Without additional funding, his device may just end up sitting on his trailer in his backyard "until we need it again," he says.