Images courtesy Mainland South Heritage Society. ©Copyright 2012 David Kadlec. All rights reserved.
On the outskirts of Halifax, nestled amongst the spruce trees and granite cliffs sheltering the former fishing village of Herring Cove stands a memorial to the courage and tenacity of the human spirit. It’s a small, unassuming plaque, cast in bronze which reads “In memory of the heroism of Joe Cracker, the fisher lad of 13 years who was the first to rescue survivors from the wreck of HMS Tribune in a heavy sea off this headland 24th November 1797“. The plaque is a reference to the tragic wreck of the British frigate lost in a gale just yards from the coastline where more than 240 men, women, and children perished within earshot of shore.
Today the area is a popular hiking and picnicking spot, offering panoramic vistas of Chedabucto Bay and the approaches to Halifax Harbour. Yet few of its many visitors realize that near this spot there is another, lesser known testament to the tenacity and ingenuity of the human spirit. To find this one though you’ll need to look a little closer. There’s no public monument. No official brass plaque. Just a mysterious series of holes drilled into the exposed bedrock where the restless surf relentlessly washes the granite bare. This network of holes is all that remains of the Parsons Ocean Power Plant – the world’s first commercial plant to convert the energy of ocean waves into electrical power. Along with solar and wind, ocean wave renewables are at the forefront of global research and development in many nations at the moment. And for good reason. It is estimated that the realistic usable worldwide amount of energy recoverable from ocean waves exceeds 2TW (2 million megawatts). That’s roughly double current global production. Compared to solar and wind, wave energy also offers the most capacity and potential to become the lowest cost long term renewable. With operational demonstration projects like Limpet on the island of Islay, the Pelamis project in Portugal, or Spain’s new 296-kilowat Mutriku plant to name just a few, there are also many companies and governments now claiming “firsts” in this emerging sector. The truth is though that the first commercial venture of its kind anywhere was already proving the concept here in Nova Scotia more than 90 years ago!
The brainchild and visionary behind it all was Osborne Havelock Parsons – born in 1873 at Petitcodiac, New Brunswick. Little is known about his early years other than he left school after grade 3 and by age 12 was working in the forests of New Brunswick as a labourer. By the time he left the bush a few years later he was already “head chopper” and in charge of his own crew – an early indication of what was to follow. He shows up again some time later registered as an employee of Robb Engineering in Amherst, Nova Scotia. Exactly how he made the transition from bush labourer to an engineering firm remains a mystery, but one thing is certain, it’s here at Robb where his inherent technical abilities and mechanical genius began to shine. With access to the best tools and technology of the day, Parsons quickly became an expert at any task assigned to him. It is said he had the gift of total recall. Skimming any book or manual with ease, digesting the information quickly, and understanding the solution to a given problem intuitively. He excelled in design and draftsmanship – two disciplines which would serve him well in the future. Like his early youth in the forests, Parsons quickly rose through the ranks at Robb. During his tenure there he produced volumes of design sketches and accompanying texts on a wide range of subjects. It was also there where he first began tinkering in earnest with the notion of harnessing energy from the sea. A subject which would subsequently become the passion and focus of his life’s work.
Over the years Parsons designed a number of devices relating to ocean wave energy, producing elaborate drawings and intricate scale models as he went. He applied for and was granted no less than 8 patents worldwide for his inventions. One of his early patents describes a device designed to harness power from the rolling motion of a boat at sea, another describes a self lighted navigational buoy, but it would be his most significant patent – the Parsons Wave Motor – which would ultimately see full scale construction.
Sometime around 1917 he moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia where he met influential educators, engineers, and business leaders who encouraged Parsons to pursue his Wave Motor patent commercially. The story goes that about 1920, with the assistance of Professor R.P. Donkin of the Technical University of Nova Scotia and H. Wheaton as consulting engineers, Parsons set out from Halifax by boat scouting the shoreline for an ideal site, settling on Tribune Head, Herring Cove. A 15 acre parcel of land was secured and construction began. Not long afterwards, on the twentieth of March, 1922, Parsons Ocean Power Company Limited was officially incorporated in the Province of Nova Scotia. The original corporate prospectus lists among its nine member Board of Directors O.H. Parsons as President and Director, H. Wheaton as Vice President and Director, and P. Donkin as Consulting Engineer. It values its capital at $500,000 (about 6.5 million dollars today) and lists among its assets all worldwide Patents granted or pending on Parsons’ design, the 15 acre block of land where “Soundings have been taken for the site of our Piers, a road has been built on our property to the place where operations will be carried on, a storehouse, blacksmith shop and other buildings necessary for the work have been erected”. It goes on to say “The Company has erected a temporary demonstration plant, which has already been in operation and does convince Engineers that Electrical Energy can be supplied by means of this “Wave Motor” not only for a fraction less than the present cost but, believe, for a fraction of the present cost“.
So, the 6.5 million dollar question. How exactly did the Wave Motor work? Well, actually the concept was quite simple really. The original design (there were later improvements) was really little more than a large float connected to a heavy mechanical lever arm and gear mechanism which, when acted upon by incoming waves, would convert that linear motion to drive an electric turbine/generator. One key element of the design however was in the construction of the pier or cribwork surrounding the pontoon. This was designed in such a way that as incoming waves approached the structure, they would be forced to both rise and stall at the face of the pier, building pressure behind them before being forced through a small opening at the front of the cribwork and acting upon the float. This was clearly an effort to magnify their energy potential and this aspect of its design can be found in many current technologies today. Another question, exactly how much energy did it produce? Unfortunately details here are sketchy at best. Some estimates rated its peak capacity at an astounding 5000 HP at 12 feet of combined motion per minute which if true would have made it one of the most efficient devices of its type ever. Experts today question that rating with good reason, and unfortunately we may never know because the only written account of its output was described in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, when in 1925, in an effort to raise extra capital the company invited roughly 25 people to its first public demonstration of the technology. The headline of the day read “On a mild day in March, 1925, a group of prominent citizens gathered at Herring Cove, and witnessed for the first time in the world’s history production of power from the action of the waves…With many witnesses in attendance, many doubtful, others willing to be shown, Mr. Parsons started his machine going. Waves swished the pontoon connected to the machine back and forth. Suddenly several 60 watt bulbs blazed with light. The demonstration was a success“.
Hardly compelling by todays standards, nor does it give any indication whatsoever as to what the device could actually produce on a “less mild day”, but apparently it was more than enough to attract investors to the project.
Unfortunately, it’s around this time where the project takes a predictable turn. As an inventor Parsons was up against the single greatest challenge still facing designers and engineers of ocean energy harvesting systems today. That is, how to build a cost effective structure or device capable of withstanding the extreme forces of wind and waves during powerful ocean storms. Parsons and company suffered several setbacks over the years, losing key infrastructure to the North Atlantic every season. Somehow though he always managed to raise more capital, rebuilding and making improvements to his dream until the final blow came from an especially powerful and devastating storm. This time, with the cost of reconstruction deemed too high, Parsons was forced to reluctantly abandon the project – but by no means did he abandon his burning ambition and lifelong dream to “place workable plants all along the coastline of Nova Scotia.“
So, as they say, he went back to the drawing board. He continued perfecting his designs on paper and scale models until October 17, 1933 when he was granted U.S. patent number 1,930,958. This revolutionary patent was for a completely new and radically improved version of his original Wave Motor. Whereas his first design utilized a fairly elaborate but primitive gear mechanism for driving the generator, the new iteration used a technologically advanced array of double action pumps, hydraulic accumulators, and pressurized sea water to drive the new turbine. This system is not dissimilar to the one currently employed on the Pelamis project in Portugal today, and it caused such a stir back in 1933 that it immediately attracted the attention of one of the most internationally celebrated hydroelectric engineers of his time, Dexter B. Cooper – technical advisor to the Roosevelt administration and father of the Passamaquoddy tidal power project.
After Cooper paid a personal visit to the abandoned Herring Cove site, the world famous, academically trained engineer and the self educated inventor became fast friends. So much so that Parsons would often visit Cooper at his summer home in Campobello, New Brunswick where they worked together quietly for years developing the new device. Unfortunately, the story takes another tragic turn here in 1938 when Cooper suddenly passes away. What happens to the project after this point is also a bit of a mystery. It was reported in the papers that the two were set to demonstrate the new device within a matter of months. Was this in reference to a scale model or had they actually constructed a working prototype already somewhere along the coast? Why is it that Parsons did not pursue the project beyond this? There is some evidence that he did in fact continue to develop and promote this new design after the death of his friend, but by now the world was becoming preoccupied with the looming threat of war. After the war the climate for small scale power generation projects had changed considerably. With the empty promise of abundant, incredibly cheap sources of atomic energy, private investment all but evaporated for innovative projects like this for decades to come. In fact, with the possible exception of Japanese scientist Yoshio Masuda (who interestingly enough is credited as the father of modern wave energy technology even though his research did not begin until nearly three decades after Parsons’) there were no significant advancements made in the field until after the so-called oil crisis of 1973. Today it’s another story altogether. There are numerous companies actively engaged in pioneering research and prototype development around the globe. Governments are investing many millions of dollars in its development, particularly within the UK, Western Europe, and of course Asia where demand for power in many areas is already surpassing supply. Interesting too is the fact that at first glance many of these current technologies bear more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Parsons 90 year old designs. Some even openly cite and refer to his patents within their own.
Parsons passed away from bronchial pneumonia in the Infectious Diseases Hospital on Morris Street in Halifax, April 25th, 1958. His death certificate lists his occupation as retired labourer. A bit of an understatement.