By Ari Phillips
In February, a natural gas power plant along the Central California coast closed after operating for more than 50 years, thus ending an era that saw the surrounding community of Morro Bay grow up around it. In an unlikely partnership, the shuttering may also help usher in a new era of energy generation — this one reliant on power from the waves that undulate through the bay before crashing up against the nearby shoreline.
The antiquated Morro Bay plant is part of a pattern of seaside plants closing due to a combination of stricter environmental regulations coupled with California’s requirement that 33 percent of electricity in the state come from renewable sources by 2020. Two companies have filed preliminary permits with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to test wave energy projects off the coast of Morro Bay, a town of about 10,000 people north of Los Angeles. Both projects would use the defunct plant as a much-needed transmission hub to push energy to the grid and from there to consumers throughout the region.
“If we aren’t able to use Morro Bay, there are other shore-based power plants shutting down along the coastline,” said Paul Grist, president and chairman of Archon Energy, one of the companies applying for a FERC permit. “They can’t meet the Renewable Portfolio Standard and they suck in and spew out millions of gallons of water.”
Dynegy, the owner of the power plant, is the other company that applied for a FERC permit. A Houston-based utility company with around 13,000 megawatts (MW) of nationwide power generation capacity, their February 6 application with FERC came several months after Archon’s. If their project tests successfully and goes on to get the two dozen or so licenses and permits that would be needed, it would eventually generate 650 MW of power and cost more than $1 billion to build.
“Dynegy filed their permit many months after we did,” Grist said. “Our goal was to use that transmission corridor to the coast and Dynegy basically followed. Their application is further towards land than ours. I’ve talked with them and we’re going to try to work together and help each other out as much as we can.”
Wave energy will be coming of age in the immediate future.
Archon Energy, co-founded by Grist in 1999 when he was 20 years old, is a small, independent power producer focusing on next generation technologies with minimal environmental impacts. In the fall of 2013, the company filed for a FERC permit to pursue testing on a one-by-fifteen mile site several miles offshore that would cost about $1 million. Grist said they are waiting for preliminary permits to start investing significant capital and holding consultations with stakeholders, including local community members and environmental groups. However, he’s had his eye on hydrokinetics — the production of energy from the flow of moving water — for a decade.
“There’s a lot of technology happening in wave energy conversion,” Grist said. “Wave energy will be coming of age in the immediate future.”
A spate of recent developments would seem to support Grist’s prediction. In March, Lockheed Martin, a global defense, security and technology company, signed on to help build what will be the world’s largest wave energy project — a 62.5 MW project several miles off Australia’s southern coast that will have the capacity to power 10,000 homes. Across several oceans, a 320 MW tidal project, another world’s largest, is under consideration off the coast of Wales. Ideally, it will lay the groundwork for similar installations around the U.K.
The first FERC-licensed, grid-connected tidal project was approved in 2012 off the coast of Maine for the Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Company. Having invested over $20 million dollars in the project, no major negative environmental impacts have been observed thus far and the company plans to expand the installation this year, deploying several additional devices and greatly increasing the amount of tidal power they are capturing.
On March 20, in an indication of FERC’s willingness to support such technologies, the agency approved a ten-year pilot license for the 600 KW Admiralty Inlet Pilot Tidal Project to be located in Puget Sound off Washington state. The project will be grid-connected and, as the first U.S. undertaking at such a scale, is leading an effort to better understand how wave and tidal energy projects interact with local environments, numerous stakeholders ranging from tribal groups to business organizations, and the electric grid.
“Anyone who has spent time on the waters of Puget Sound understands the power inherent in the tides,” Steve Klein, Snohomish Public Utility District (PUD) General Manager, told the local news. “In granting this license, the FERC acknowledges the vigilant efforts of the PUD and its partners to test the viability of a new reliable source of clean energy while at the same time ensuring the protection of the environment and existing uses.”
Ocean current resources are about 800 times denser than wind currents … meaning a 12-mph marine current generates the equivalent amount of force as a 110-mph wind gust.
Wave and tidal power are both hydrokinetic sources of energy. Wave power harnesses the energy of surface waves through a number of different mechanisms, many still in early stages of development. Currently the primary method involves floating buoys the size of lighthouses that are moored to the ocean floor. In another example, a group of researchers at UC-Berkeley have developed what they call a “seafloor carpet” that absorbs the impact of ocean waves much as muddy seabeds do.
Tidal power uses the flow of ocean currents, tides or inland waterways to capture the potential energy between high and low tides as they occur every 12 hours. “The rotation of the earth creates wind on the ocean surface that forms waves, while the gravitational pull of the moon creates coastal tides and currents,” the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) explains.
As the search for new forms of clean, sustainable energy persists, the global potential of wave and tidal power represents an untested but immensely promising frontier. Oceans cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface — and they do so densely. Ocean current resources are about 800 times denser than wind currents, according to NREL, meaning a 12-mph marine current generates the equivalent amount of force as a 110-mph wind gust. With more than half of all Americans living near the coastline, wave and tidal power is also appealing for its proximity to electricity demand centers, whereas the many of the best wind and solar sites are hundreds of miles from population hubs.
A 2012 report prepared by RE Vision Consulting for the Department of Energy found that the theoretical ocean wave energy resource potential in the U.S. is more than 50 percent of the annual domestic demand of the entire country. The World Energy Council has estimated that approximately 2 terawatts — 2 million megawatts or double current world electricity production — could be produced from the oceans via wave power.
Testing Waves Up And Down The Coast
But even in the small nook of ocean lapping into Morro Bay, an impressive amount of energy is being devoted to the development of wave, and possibly tidal, power generation. Just about a dozen miles inland from the Bay, research into setting up a National Wave Energy Test Facility in California (CalWave) is underway at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. As part of the newly formed Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy, the facility has been selected by DOE to determine which location along California’s coast has the best potential to accelerate the development of a commercial ocean renewable energy industry. IATPP, formed in 2012, is the brainchild of former California State Senator Sam Blakeslee, who has been running it since its inception on a pro-bono basis. Blakeslee has a Ph.D. in geophysics from nearby UC-Santa Barbara and also worked as a strategic planner for Exxon before entering state politics in 2005. He left politics just over a year ago after leading the GOP State Assembly and helping craft California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, among other things.
“I have no plans to return to politics,” Blakeslee told ThinkProgress. “The best place to drive policy right now is in some of these think tanks working on exciting new ideas, and not in state houses or on the Hill where people can’t seem to agree on anything.”
Blakeslee wants to help develop and spread the potential transformative benefits of emerging technologies rather than get bogged down by laws, regulations, and standards that can actually impede the application of such innovations. And after signaling its interest in giving up to $40 million to the expansion of wave energy technologies — pending Congressional approval — its seems DOE is pursuing the same type of paradigm-shifting innovation.
Blakeslee likens the prospect of a national wave testing facility to the public-private partnership that led to the proliferation of satellites. In that case, satellite owners and operators share in the common technology and infrastructure provided by the government which would otherwise be cost-prohibitive to development.
“The Obama administration is looking to develop the test facility so companies can test equipment and compare results in a facility that would otherwise be unavailable to them individually,” Blakeslee said. “Down the road as the technology develops there will be wave farms, and this is one of the major steps towards that. By having this facility in the U.S. the likelihood that the country will be a big commercial player in the industry greatly increases.”
By having this facility in the U.S. the likelihood that the country will be a big commercial player in the industry greatly increases.
Blakeslee has had conversations with Grist about the type of research that needs to occur off Morro Bay before any siting decisions are made. He and Grist both expressed concern for marine life, especially migratory mammals such as blue whales, gray whales, and humpback whales, as well as fishing communities that could be impacted by the projects. These concerns will need to be addressed up and down California’s 750-mile coastline and the rest of the West Coast if wave and tidal power are to proliferate.
The closing of the Morro Bay Power Plant is not a one-time, serendipitous occasion, but part of a trend of coastal power facilities closing due to old age and new regulations aimed at protecting sea life being negatively impacted by the facilities’ cooling systems. In fact, the plant is just one of 19 gas-fired power plants along the coast of California to be phased out of operation in order to project marine life from being sucked through their cooling systems or impacted by the hot water released back into the ocean. This will open up 5,500 MW of transmission lines and a similar amount of energy demand — although many would like to see some of that demand reduced through efficiency and conservation measures rather than replaced, even by sustainable sources.
Farther down the coast, the recent closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has opened up not only hundreds of megawatts of transmission lines, but also a power supply void that will need to be filled. The California Public Utilities Commission recently directed Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric to secure up to 1,500 MW of new energy by 2022, with at least 600 MW coming from renewable energy sources or energy efficiency measures.
Having available transmission lines is critical for a nascent technology like wave power. “Building transmission lines in California can take up to a decade,” Blakeslee said. “The availability of transmission lines and to have a prescribed amount of power brought into the system through Independent System Operators are big considerations for any energy project in the state.”
Transmission is far from the only challenge wave and tidal power will have to overcome on the path to becoming major energy providers. New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technologies encapsulates the ups-and-downs of the early days of the industry. In February, Ocean Power Technologies signed on to provide buoys for the Lockheed Martin project off the coast of Australia, a major deal that sent the company’s stock soaring. The company has spent millions of dollars developing a PowerBuoy that converts ocean wave energy into commercial scale electricity. Standing 140 feet tall, it resembles a giant metal detector and when submerged in the ocean, only the handle remains above water. The tip-of-the-iceberg effect in the form of wave energy.
Then in March, Ocean Power Technologies shelved its much-hyped plans to develop the country’s first large-scale wave energy project off the coast of Oregon, which would have employed a flotilla of up to 100 buoys.
A key challenge is that all new technologies are initially uncompetitive.
Kevin Watkins, the Pacific Northwest representative for Ocean Power Technologies, told the Oregonian that implementing the wave energy technology on a large scale became too expensive and complicated. The cumbersome regulatory process and concern from fishing and crabbing communities about ecological and economic impacts caused unanticipated delays.
Peter Fraenkel, co-founder of U.K.-based Marine Current Turbines Limited and a pioneer in the field of wave and tidal energy, thinks that the bottom-line concern is really cost.
“A key challenge is that all new technologies are initially uncompetitive,” he told ThinkProgress via email. “Conventional generation using steam turbines, gas turbines or nuclear for example were originally developed on an almost cost-no-object basis mainly for military purposes. Sadly there seems to be no military application for wave or tidal energy so it will need subsidies in some shape or form for early projects.”
Fraenkel also acknowledges the challenges of grid connectivity, saying that in the U.K., unlike along California’s coastline, promising tidal and wave resources lack easy transmission options. “So we have a ‘Catch 22′ situation where nobody wants to invest in grid extension until the technology to generate into the grid extension is ready and nobody wants to invest in projects where there is no certainty of having a grid connection.”
While oceans may cover more than two-thirds of the planet, wave and tidal power require concentrated energy locations with strong currents or consistently large waves. This limits the opportunities to a tiny percentage of the ocean, according to Fraenkel. So on top of technological advances and economic favorability, siting, natural resources availability, and transmission access must all align for a successful wave or tidal power project. Even so, Fraenkel views the challenges as not only worth overcoming, but necessary to overcome.
“The oceans contain a huge amount of energy so logic dictates that we need to learn to extract energy where possible bearing in mind that future use of fossil fuel is going to be inhibited both by the effects of pollution induced climate change and by resource depletion,” he said. “So my message is that although extracting energy from the oceans is more difficult and perhaps less successful so far than some people might have wished, it has been shown to be possible and will no doubt become increasingly important in future.”