Tuesday, December 07, 2004
This is cool: A local genius (I'm being serious this time) invented a device that uses energy from ocean waves to create electricity -- winning $100,000 in a contest sponsored by the Siemens Foundation. (When I was in high school, it was known as the Westinghouse Competition.)
For fun, Aaron (Goldin), a straight-A student, spent two years working on the invention. He believed a gyroscope would create a counterforce against waves that would generate electrical energy. He used an old reel-to-reel tape deck, an answering machine and printer parts to build his device.
Lead judge Kathie Olsen, associate director for science for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said Aaron's project won the top prize because it used high-level physics and was timely, practical and creative. The former chief scientist for NASA said the national government has made it a priority to find an environmentally clean, renewable energy source. Seventy percent of the earth is covered by ocean, she said, so harnessing the power of the wave into electrical energy showed ingenuity.
If his device can actually make electricity cheaply and efficiently, then this could be a boon for mankind. However, the biggest barrier likely won't be working the bugs out of the technology, but overcoming environmentalists.
In order to have a machine that turns wave power into electricity, you've got to put the machine on the coastline.
Yes, that's an obvious observation, but it's also what will probably kill the technology. Californians and Floridians hate the oil derricks that sit off the coast of their states. The California Coastal Commission has in the past turned down proposals for extended reach drilling where the derrick is placed a short distance inland and then you drill down westward, underneath the sea floor, at an angle. The derrick itself could be fairly well hidden from view by trees and faux landforms -- much like many cell phone towers are camouflaged.
Drilling for oil certainly isn't the same as harnessing wave power. With oil, the worst that can happen is a massive spill. With wave power, it's ... nothing. So that may not be the best comparison, but there is another, better one: the proposed wind farm off the coast of Nantucket Sound.
Yes, wind power, another clean energy source -- but it's also an eyesore. In Massachusetts, these people have paid millions of dollars for their homes with ocean views, and they're not going to have them ruined without putting up a fight. Will it be any different five or 10 years down the line when Goldin's technology is ready for primetime? Do you think Barbra Streisand will embrace this technology, which doesn't produce greenhouse gases or radioactive waste or acid rain, when a generator is placed on the beach below her home?
Environmentalists and their allies in Congress and the state legislatures may soon have a decision to make: Are they willing to have certain areas of coastline "desecrated" by Goldin's wave power generators, or is no energy source -- no matter how clean -- worth ruining the aesthetics of the nation's coastlines?
With the proposals to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve quashed -- despite the fact that an enormous amount of energy (in the form of oil) could be harnessed on a very small footprint -- would a similar fate be in store for wave power?
I'd like to think that environmentalists can't have it both ways -- opposing oil, coal and other fossil fuels because of the damage they do to the environment and opposing clean energy sources because they are unattractive to the eyes -- but I'm not so sure.