Ocean power surges forward
Wave power and tidal power are still experimental, but may be little more than five years away from commercial development.
Three miles off the craggy, wave-crashing coastline near Humboldt Bay, Calif., deep ocean swells roll through a swath of ocean that is soon to be the site of the nation's first major wave-power project.Skip to next paragraph
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Like other renewable energy technology, ocean power generated by waves, tidal currents, or steady offshore winds has been considered full of promise yet perennially years from reaching full-blown commercial development.
That's still true – commercial-scale deployment is at least five years away. Yet there are fresh signs that ocean power is surging. And if all goes well, WaveConnect, the wave-energy pilot project at Humboldt that's being developed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), could by next year deploy five commercial-scale wave systems, each putting 1 megawatt of ocean-generated power onto the electric grid.
At less than 1 percent of the capacity of a big coal-fired power plant, that might seem a pittance. Yet studies show that wave energy could one day produce enough power to supply 17 percent of California's electric needs – and make a sizable dent in the state's greenhouse gas emissions.
Nationwide, ocean power's potential is far larger. Waves alone could produce 10,000 megawatts of power, about 6.5 percent of US electricity demand – or as much as produced by conventional hydropower dam generators, estimated the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the research arm of the public utility industry based in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2007. All together, offshore wind, tidal power, and waves could meet 10 percent of US electricity needs.
That potential hasn't gone unnoticed by the Obama administration. After years of jurisdictional bickering, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Department of Interior last month moved to clarify permitting requirements that have long slowed ocean energy development.
While the Bush administration requested zero for its Department of Energy ocean-power R&D budget a few years ago, the agency has reversed course and now plans to quadruple funding to $40 million in the next fiscal year.
If the WaveConnect pilot project succeeds, experts say that the Humboldt site, along with another off Mendocino County to the south, could expand to 80 megawatts. Success there could fling open the door to commercial-scale projects not only along California's surf-pounding coast but prompt a bicoastal US wave-power development surge.
"Even without much support, ocean power has proliferated in the last two to three years, with many more companies trying new and different technology," says George Hagerman, an ocean-energy researcher at the Virginia Tech Advanced Research Institute in Arlington, Va.