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While Finavera's Buoy Sinks, Hopes of Harnessing Ocean Energy Survive

Just hours before its scheduled removal, AquaBuOY 2.0 has sunk.

Finavera Renewable's 72-foot high wave energy test buoy went down in about 115 feet of water on Oct. 27, just one day before it was to be removed from its location in the waters off of Lincoln County, a part of the Central Oregon Coast. The device had been deployed on September 6.

While company officials say they don't know exactly why it sunk, Finavera Renewable's spokesman Mike Clark said, "It seems to have something to do with the float section of the device." He said the buoy began taking on water and the bilge pump "couldn't keep up with the amount of water it was taking on." The pump failed and the device went down. "We're pretty sure it didn't have anything to do with the power-generating technology," Clark said.

Both Clark and Finavera's Portland-based VP for Business Development, Kevin Bannister, do not believe foul play was involved; saying that the company has excellent relations with local officials and the fishing community.

Hugh Link, the interim administrator for the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission agrees that the relationship between Finavera and the fishing industry is good.  "We have a really good working relationship with Finavera. They have such a great relationship with the Newport fleet in Lincoln County - everybody feels bad that this happened for them."

Link added, "They want to do the right thing and get it out. "

Wayne Belmont, Lincoln County's attorney, said he'd like the device out "as soon as possible, but we live on the coast and we also recognize that winter weather conditions make it very difficult to do so." Neither Belmont nor Link believed any legal action would result from the 40-ton buoy's mishap. "Stuff happens," Link said. "When you put anything in the ocean you have to be careful."

Finavera's Clark said "we would rather get it out tomorrow if not yesterday" but removing the $ 2 million buoy requires some cooperation.

For one Mother Nature has to play along. The Pacific Ocean off the Oregon Coast can get very nasty as winter approaches. "It's just a piece of steel and we're not going to risk anybody's life to get a piece of steel out of the ocean," Clark said. Secondly Finavera has to line up a salvage crew and that takes 21-days advance notice, Bannister added. He said the company is "investigating other options but the writing seems to be on the wall that we're not going to be able to do that until spring or summer."

That's problematic for local fishermen, especially crabbers, said Link of the crab commission.  The Oregon crabbing season starts Dec. 1 and fishermen are scheduled to drop their gear on Nov. 28.  "It would be easier for them to get it out by the 27th before crab gear was spread out all off the coast in that area," Link said. 

Finavera officials said they would likely learn more about what went wrong the sooner they got the device off the ocean floor. "The evidence will be in better condition than if it's down there for six months," Bannister said.

According to Clark, the test buoy was only engineered to withstand three months of use. It sunk after two. "So when people say - Oh there's this device and it sank. How do you expect it to last 20 years or even five years in a real commercial development? It wasn't designed for that," Clark said. "Granted it wasn't designed for two months either."

Hope Floats 

Although Finavera officials admitted the sunken buoy was not the result they had wanted, they said from a data-gathering point of view, the test was a success. "For the purpose of the project, it was highly successful," Bannister said. "The actual data we got was positive and validated all the modeling," Clark added. Key data was harnessed from the host pump and the power takeoff system, he said. "But that's really hard to explain to people when the device sank - that we still got a lot of valuable information."

Clark said the buoy's sinking would not slow Finavera's wave energy development and the company is working on its third generation buoy - the AquaBuOY 3.0 - as planned. Its next buoy deployment will probably not take place before the end of 2008, Clark said.

Miriam Widman has more than 20 years experience as a journalist and has covered the wave and solar industries for Off the Record Research, an investment research group. She also contributes to NPR and to the Willamette Week, a weekly newspaper in Portland, Oregon.

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