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Wave-power proposals alarm locals

US waters could supply up to 10 percent of electric needs but fast-track permits anger communities.

By Frank HartzellContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 4, 2008

One method of harnessing wave power is the Pelamis system, an articulated series of rail-car-sized units, which are set to be deployed in several offshore locations in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

Courtesy Pelamis Wave Power

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Fort Bragg, Calif.

From roadless villages in Alaska to remote bends in the Mississippi River, developers are staking claim to thousands of miles of America's oceans and rivers to test devices that use waves and currents to produce electric power.

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Their experiments are launching a new industry that has the potential to supply up to 10 percent of America's electric needs. But critics say rapid federal approval of the exclusive right to conduct these experiments amounts to a private seizure of communities' waterfronts.

"This process, especially in Oregon, feels like a new Klondike gold rush," says environmentalist Richard Charter, a longtime leader in ocean-protection efforts. "There are people filing claims, people jumping claims, and nobody looking at the big picture. The most amazing part of this power gold rush is that it seems to be happening entirely under the national radar."

Many state and federal agencies, as well as surprised local communities, argue that the permitting process under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is too rapid and prevents local input.

In Fort Bragg, Calif., Mayor Doug Hammerstrom was surprised last year to find that waters off his town had been claimed by a major utility with a preliminary permit application. The city filed legal motions to participate in the novel process.

"We fear that FERC, as a distant agency, may not consider local concerns," says Mr. Hammerstrom.

The fast-emerging technology, known as hydrokinetics, is vital to US renewable-energy efforts, supporters say.

"Hydrokinetic technologies, with their great promise and potential to harness abundant supplies of renewable power ... fit that bill," says FERC Commissioner Philip Moeller. He points to Oregon as an example of state and federal collaboration, where Gov. Theodore Kulongoski (D), as well as state and federal lawmakers, have invited researchers, entrepreneurs, and developers into state waters.

As of Feb. 4, FERC had granted 47 permits for ocean, wave, and tidal projects and another 41 were pending. FERC had issued 40 river permits and 55 more were pending.

Experts expect the process to continue to accelerate. Developers are rushing into hydrokinetics because recent innovations in wireless technology and robotics have improved communication between the devices and the shore and narrowed the price gap with wind and solar power. Although it costs an estimated 20 cents to produce a kilowatt hour with hydrokinetics – still about three times too expensive to be commercially viable, more research could lower the price, supporters say. An Idaho study for the US Department of Energy has estimated that hydrokinetics could double the output of conventional dams by using rivers, currents, and waves at some 130,000 sites in all 50 states.