Feds Pull Plug on Wave Power Project

Published August 29, 2011

The federal government has cancelled permits for a wave power project on the California coast that renewable power advocates had hailed as an alternative to conventional energy sources. 

Pessimistic Prospects

The Sonoma County Water Agency had obtained three permits in 2009 to study the feasibility of building three wave power demonstration projects of 5 MW each. However, the water agency couldn’t raise the $2 million to $3 million needed to study the sites off Fort Ross near Sea Ranch, California. The water agency earlier this year failed to win a U.S. Department of Energy grant that would have covered the project’s funding requirements.

Wave energy faces numerous obstacles, ranging from ineffective technology to opposition from environmental groups and the California Energy and Coastal Commission. California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), has for years invested time and money exploring wave power, but recently decided to suspend the effort because of technical difficulties, higher than expected costs, and protests from local environmentalists.

One major technological obstacle is developing equipment that can withstand corrosive salt water and the harsh mechanics of the ocean for a long time. Power plants are expected to last for a few decades at least, and developing long-lasting wave power machinery has proven more difficult than wave power proponents had anticipated or promised. 

Feds Continue Subsidies

The U.S. Department of Energy continues to fund some wave power projects, announcing last September $37 million in spending on 27 projects. 

Meanwhile, new efforts are underway in Washington State to pursue tidal energy, a close cousin of wave energy. Wave and tidal power both fall under the term “hydrokinetic” energy. Congress is backing the research with $1.75 million for a tidal power experiment at Sequim, Washington.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the main federal agency in charge of licensing at the Sequim project. If all goes as planned, two large hydro turbines will be installed 200 feet deep in the harsh waters of Admiralty Inlet by late summer 2013. 

At the very least, that effort will ratchet up the competition between technologies and projects for shrinking federal tax dollars, said Rob Bradley, CEO of the Institute for Energy Research. 

“Perhaps the recent budget crisis has reached the Department of Energy, where they have to pick winners and losers among their market losers,” said Bradley. 

“This [reduction of government subsidies for wave power] is a start, but the paring will now need to go to the mature renewable technologies—wind and solar,” Bradley observed.

Tom Tanton ([email protected]) is principal of T2 & Associates, a California-based energy technology and policy consulting group.