Ocean energy goes crowdfunding

They talk about the “valley of death” that technology startups face. Maybe for ocean energy it ought to be called the Mariana Trench of death. It’s deep, with precious little funding floating around to help a new wave or advanced tidal concept make it to the commercial prototype stage in the long development process.

John Hanna knows all about it. An old skipper, student of marine biology, skilled ironworker and welding expert, he has a well-conceived plan for extracting energy from the waves that crash against coastal jetties. A bid for Kickstarter funding didn’t work out, but a sliver of new hope has arrived with the launch of Clean Reach, a crowdfunding site focused specifically on ocean energy.

At work on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bride (image via Clean Reach)

Hanna’s “Wave Energy Turbine GENerator” – that’s WETGEN – is one of the five projects now seeking funding on the new site. One other project is also a wave energy converter, while three projects are pointed toward ocean-energy education and community building.

Co-founder and CEO Stephanie Thornton, a veteran of the ocean energy industry, said the projects reflect the three broad goals of Clean Reach – to provide funding to young startups; to connect a largely unaware public to ocean energy; and to accelerate the growth of the industry.

It won’t take much to fund Hanna – he’s just looking for $3,500 as he pushes forward with his oscillating water column turbine.

The general idea with OWCs is to use the force of undulating waves to push air out of a chamber and then suck it back in. Both directions of air movement can spin a turbine in a single direction, and the spinning of the turbine is translated to electricity generation.

Hanna, who lives near the Oregon coastal town of Coos Bay, knows of wave energy devices, having spent nearly three years working as a steel and welding inspector on Ocean Power Technologies’ PB150 as it was being developed in Oregon.  That experience helped him conceive of his own, entirely different concept, founded on what he believes is the most important attribute of a successful device.

image via Clean Reach

“The secret to the whole wave energy thing is simplicity,” he said in an interview. “It’s got to be simple and inexpensive to manufacture, and rugged and durable enough to survive in a harsh environment.”

With this in mind, Hanna said, his device has but two moving parts, neither of which comes into direct contact with the ocean.

That idea of simplicity also extends to how Hanna sees his turbine being deployed: not plunked in the ocean miles off the coast, but attached to ocean jetties that protect harbors, where maintenance would consist of driving out to the turbine in a pickup truck and working on it on-site. No need for barges, cranes, divers and all that can come with working in the open ocean.

Hanna doesn’t have a fancy university degree, but he’s savvy. He won a $10,000 grant from an Oregon R&D fund that’s paying for Oregon State University to develop his small working prototype – not so much because he couldn’t have done it himself, but because the analysis the university will provide will give him third-party validation.

He’s also got a patent for his concept, and interest in it from the highly regarded Beaufort Research center at University College Cork in Ireland. It’s clearly an innovation of a caliber that deserves support.

“It’s not something I’m going to get rich off,” Hanna said. “Heck, I’m 73 years old. This is just something I believe in. I think I’ve got something that can work and I want to take it as far as I can.”

* Pete Danko, EarthTechling