OCEAN ALMOST READY TO GIVE UP ITS ENERGY
Ocean power surges forward; Wave power and tidal power are still experimental, but may be little more than five years away from commercial development.
Mark Clayton, April 24, 2009 (Christian Science Monitor)
Although commercial-scale deployment of U.S. ocean energy projects is considered by mainstream energy developers to be 5 years off, WaveConnect, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) wave-energy pilot project has been granted approval by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to move ahead.
PG&E will use a small portion of ratepayer funds to deploy and test 5 different 1-megawatt systems at a site 3 miles outside Humboldt Bay off the rugged Northern California coast.
CPUC's approval follows a major shift in federal policy on offshore energy. After years of foot-dragging by the Bush administration, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Department of Interior (DOI) have settled regulatory jurisdiction issues and the Obama Department of Energy (DOE) will quadruple ocean-power R&D funding to $40 million for the next fiscal year.
Success at the Humboldt site would open the possibility of commercial-scale projects along all the U.S. coasts.
Note Pacific coast 30, Atlantic coast 20. (click to enlarge)
50-to-80 international companies and 15-to-20 U.S. companies are developing ocean power prototypes. In Fall 2008, FERC had allowed 34 tidal-power and 9 wave-power U.S. permits. Another 20 tidal-power, 4 wave-energy and 3 ocean-current applications are pending.
Funding is problematic. Financing for all energy projects has disappeared with the economic downturn. One report counted 17 Wall Street firms that funded New Energy before the financial crisis, of which 7 remain active in the sector. As the newest and most unproven of the New Energies, wave, tidal and current power will surely struggle. The struggle will postpone emergence at commercial scale.
When the money starts coming, technologies that demonstrate “survivability” in the harsh ocean environment will be the ones to get it.
PowerBuoy, from Ocean Power Technology (OPT), is a 135-five-foot-long floating steel cylinder with a pistonlike structure inside to translate the bobbing of the waves into as much as 150 kilowatts of electricity sent to power stations ashore via seafloor cable. Wave battering has sunk some PowerBuoys but a 56-foot-long prototype unit functioned 2 years nonstop before being taken out of the water for further study.
OPT PowerBuoy. (click to enlarge)
Christopher Sauer’s Ocean Renewable Power expects to deploy an underwater tidal energy generator, in testing since December 2007, near Eastport, Maine, later in 2009. It is a series of propellers that can covert 6-knot tide flows into as much as 100,000 watts of power using a series of 52 foot wide by 14 foot high “stacked” turbines.
Pelamis, a series of red metal cylinders connected by hinges and hydraulic pistons, tested last fall off the coast of Portugal until the harsh ocean environment closed down the project. Evaluation of a Pelamis unit off the coast of Massachusetts a few years ago concluded a $273 million, 206-device installation could produce 13.4 cents/kilowatt-hour electricity and that price would drop with economies of scale. The evaluation concluded that wave energy could be price competitive with onshore wind power if the industy designated a technology that was then mass-produced.
Offshore wind will also get a big boost from new clarity at the regulatory and funding agencies (FERC, DOI, DOE). It is regarded as a commercially ready technology desptie the fact that there are as yet no U.S. offshore wind installations. Europe has deployed 10,000 megawatts offshore. It is estimated the U.S. has an offshore potential of ~500,000 megawatts. The offshore potential of the 10-to-11 Mid Atlantic Bight states could supply as much as 20% of their electricity.
Burt Hamner’s Gray’s Harbor Ocean Energy is developing a hybrid offshore wind/wave energy device that will get 10% of its power from waves and 90% from wind power – IF the company can untangle the permitting process.Even under the new jurisdictional clairifications, it is not yet entirely certain whether wind or wave energy regulation should take precedence.
Note all the Pacific action. (click to enlarge)
New Energy industry veterans say the hydrokinetic (wave, tidal and current) energies are at about the same stage now as onshore wind power was in the early 1980s. There is one difference: Timing. Technology, the marketplace and the demand for emissions-free, domestic energy are all a quarter-century farther along. There is a pipeline full of industrious development awaiting that one commercial ocean energy success that will set the sector aboom.
Artist's rendering of what an OPT PowerBuoy installation off the California coast might look like. (click to enlarge)
A 2007 study from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the research arm of the public utility industry, found wave energy could produce as much as 6.5% of U.S. electricity (10,000 megawatts). Because waves hit harder on the Pacific coast's shorter, deeper continental shelf, wave energy could produce 17% of California’s electricity with comparable amounts coming from Oregon, Washington state, Alaska and Hawaii.
Together, EPRI estimated the hydrokinetic energies could provide more than 10% of U.S. electricity needs.
Tidal energy already has pilot projects, by Verdant Power in New York City’s East River and Hydro Green Energy on the upper Mississippi River, under way. Though farther along than ocean energies and offshore wind in the U.S., it has fewer potential sites but could still eventually provide 3,000 megawatts of domestic power.
A major hurdle remaining before the hydrokinetic energies is the study of environmental impacts. Though widely thought to be relatively benign, the hydrokinetic energies must nevertheless develop standards and practices and meet clearly designated criteria. A PowerBuoy installed near a Navy base in Hawaii was found to have “no significant impact…” but the entire range of technologies must demonstrate they will not have deleterious effects.
If, in the process of study, harm is discovered to marine life or habitat, the hydrokinetic energy industry must show it can develop mitigations. Disruptions, if there are any, to fishing, recreational boating and surfing, environmental and tourism businesses must be abridged. The industry must demonstrate it can genially cohabit offshore waters.
NYC East River current devices. (click to enlarge)
There are many study centers, like WaveConnect, for the hydrokinetic energies. They include the Wallace Energy Systems & Renewables Facility at Oregon State University, the European Marine Energy Centre in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, and the Wave Energy Centre (WavEC) in Lisbon, Portugal. It would be wise for one or all of them to copy the example of the American Wind Wildlife Institute, a public-private partnership between the U.S. wind industry, federal regulatory agencies and environmental groups, that is engaged in proactive confrontation with siting issues.
Offshore wind is more expensive to build than onshore wind but both are more economical, especially during the current financial difficulties, than building new coal, nuclear or natural gas plants. Offshore wind is significantly more productive and less intermittent than onshore wind. It is the only ocean energy technology presently ready to be deployed at gigawatt scale.
The hydrokinetic energies are expected to play an important role in New Energy production toward 2020 – IF undertakings like WaveConnect get started now.
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- George Hagerman, ocean-energy researcher, Virginia Tech Advanced Research Institute: “Even without much support, ocean power has proliferated in the last two to three years, with many more companies trying new and different technology…”
- Christopher Sauer, CEO, Ocean Renewable Power: “It’s really been a struggle, particularly since mid-September when Bear Sterns went down…We worked without pay for a while, but we made it through…[Venture capitalists are] not writing checks yet, but they’re talking more…”
- Roger Bedard, ocean technology leader, EPRI: “Wave-power technology is still very much in emerging pre-commercial stage…But what we’re seeing with the PG&E WaveConnect is an important project that could have a significant impact.”
- EPRI study, 2004: “Even with worst-case assumptions, the economics of wave power compares favorably to wind power…”
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- Charles Dunleavy, CFO, OPT: “The ability to ride out passing huge waves is a very important part of our system…Right now, the industry is basically just trying to assimilate and deal with many different technologies as well as the cost of putting structures out there in the ocean.”
- Bedard, EPRI, on the hydrokinetic energies’ environmental impacts: “We think they’re benign…But we’ve never put large arrays of energy devices in the ocean before. If you make these things big enough, they would have a negative impact.”
- David Eisenhauer, spokesman, PG&E: “There’s definitely good potential for [WaveConnect]… It’s our responsibility to explore any renewable energy we can bring to our customers – but only if it can be done in an economically and environmentally feasible way.”
- Burt Hamner, CEO, Gray’s Harbor: “What the public has to understand is that we are faced with a flat-out energy crisis…We have to change the regulatory system to develop a structure that’s realistic for what we’re doing.” -- “There is no cheap solution…But if we’re successful, the prize could be a big one.”