Wave Power: Oceans of Potential, But Is It Viable?

Wave Power: Oceans of Potential, But Is It Viable?

Alisa Opar
Published: 03/04/2009

The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz may soon have some company in the waters off San Francisco.  Last Friday, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that the city submitted a “preliminary permit application” to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to develop a wave power project. If approved, the San Francisco scheme will join a handful of other pilot projects in, and heading toward, U.S. waters.

Blogging on CleanTechnica, Newsom wrote that wave power there has the potential to generate up to 100 megawatts and create some 100 jobs. He didn’t specify which type of device San Francisco would deploy off its coast to harness energy from waves, but he did mention the wide variety of possibilities:

There are over 50 different types of wave devices currently under development, ranging from “pitching” devices (Pelamis), “overtopping” devices (Wave Dragon), oscillating water columns (OceanLinx) and “heaving” devices (Aquabuoy).  Some of these devices are based on “biomimicry” principles, which imitate natural designs and processes (bioWave, WaveRoller). Others can even provide both wave power and desalination (CETO).  Wave technology is still new, but the possibilities of clean, green energy produced by the ocean is very real, if we invest in the technology. We will look at all of these and others technologies to find what will work best for us in San Francisco’s waters.

As Naomi Luick points out in an article in ES&T, recent technical advances and an influx of funds make the technology look promising:

The state of Oregon has invested millions of dollars in renewable energy and more than $4 million in wave energy research alone. This year, the U.S. Department of Energy announced funding for a Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center in Oregon. The site will include a wave tank and other indoor testing facilities, among other resources. To be managed by OSU, the University of Washington, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the center will receive approximately $13 million for up to 5 years.

Meanwhile, two major utility-funded projects got the green light earlier this year. The California Public Utilities Commission approved $2 million in funding in January for Pacific Gas and Electric to develop a project off the coast of northern California. In Washington state, the Snohomish Public Utility District received funding for a project in Admiralty Inlet. And all eyes have been trained on the first full-scale wave farm to open, Aguadoura, 5 kilometers offshore of Portugal, which has been operating since last September. The plant currently produces up to 2.25 megawatts of electricity, but the farm is expected to be a 20-megawatt operation.

But there are still environmental concerns, including impacts on marine ecology, as well as regulatory obstacles, and the possibility of hurting fishing communities.

To help move wave and tidal power forward, in December, Newsom joined other mayors, industrial leaders, academics, and environmentalists in signing on to the “Ocean Renewable Energy” white paper—a report put out by the Environmental Defense Fund. The document is a “roadmap for harnessing the power of the ocean,” which was given to Obama’s transition team. The paper calls for, among the recommendations, putting small-scale projects in the water. Doing so “entails some environmental risk, it appears such risk may be managed adequately through permitting conditions that require modification, redeployment, or removal of projects as appropriate to achieve the trackable performance standards,” the report says.

Despite the obstacles, if the various stakeholders are willing to work together, as the white paper suggests, perhaps the oceans will provide a safe, viable source of renewable energy.