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An Australian company is considering several sites along the New England coast for what could be the nation's first power plant capable of turning the energy from ocean waves into electricity.
Energetech Australia's plant could generate enough power to light up 800 to 1,200 homes by using ocean swells to power a turbine. Supporters of the new technology say it is nonpolluting and theroetically unlimited, but they acknowledge that some may find the tennis court-length concrete structure to be an eyesore.
Local consultants for Energetech Australia stressed that the project is still in its earliest stages, but they confirm that the company is considering sites in Gloucester, Rockport, Hull, Portland, Maine, and an undisclosed site in Rhode Island. The consultants, Commonwealth Resource Management, met with Massachusetts officials last week to find out what permits would be needed for such a project.
Energetech officials said if a site is chosen in New England, they would like to start construction by late next year.
''Look, no matter where they are they are ugly, but people are fascinated by them. They have positive environmental aspects,'' such as protecting the shoreline from erosion, said Michael E. McCormick, research professor of civil engineering at Johns Hopkins University, who has studied wave power for years.
Currently, there is only one commercial wave energy power plant in the world - a tiny one in Scotland powering 400 homes. But interest is growing in the power source as countries attempt to reduce the burning of fossil fuels that can cause global warming. The World Energy Council, a private sustainable energy group, estimates the oceans could supply twice as much electricity as the world now consumes.
Although the generators can be expensive to build, the fuel - waves - is free, making it competitive with gas and oil, analysts say.
Energetech, a small firm founded in 1997, is about to start construction on two other demonstration wave energy plants - one in Vancouver, British Columbia, and another in Australia. Meanwhile, another company has won approval for a smaller plant in a tiny fishing village in Washington state. In addition, Britain has just awarded more than $3 million to fund three wave energy projects off Scotland's coast.
New England's coastal waters are deep enough to capture the ocean swells' maximum power, making the region a perfect candidate for a wave energy plant, analysts say. Officials in the region say the concept may be intriguing, but they want to learn more about it before making any decisions.
''We're listening, but it's premature to know if it makes sense for Hull - or the area,'' said Phil Lemnios, Hull's town manager. ''We really don't know much yet.'' Rockport officials echoed him, and Gloucester officials said they had not yet heard of the project.
Wave energy is far from a new concept: The first reported patent was filed in Paris in 1799. A Frenchman in the early 1900s even powered his house using the same general concept Energetech intends to use in New England.
But it wasn't until the early 1970s oil embargo that a flurry of government-sponsored wave energy projects began - particularly in the United Kingdom, Norway and Japan. Still, design flaws plagued the field.
In the last several years, wave energy has undergone a renaissance and now garners interest in the United States, where it has largely been ignored. The California Energy Department is spending $120,000 to figure out how much wave energy that state's coastline could generate. Energetech is in New England largely because of a $1 million committment it received from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund to scout out potential wave energy sites in the region.
The company's wave machine uses existing technology except for two parabolic-shaped walls that force ocean swells into a hollow center chamber. When waves pass, the air in that chamber is compressed upward, spinning a turbine. Energetech officials plan to build one structure in New England, but said several could ideally be linked together and connected to the national power system.
Not everyone is pleased with the concept, however. Besides the aesthetic objections to the plants themselves, some scientists have raised concerns that the structures could cause - not prevent - erosion nearby and may harm marine habitat near the sites.