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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on February 2nd, 2010, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 10, Issue 47 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 10, Issue 47

Air Force blue is going green

A proposed wave energy pilot program off the coast of Vandenberg could be a step toward widespread commercial wave energy

BY NICHOLAS WALTER


Power, power everywhere
This stretch of water off the coast of Vandenberg Air Force Base may be home to a PG&E wave-energy project.
PHOTO BY BRYAN BOYETTE, VANDENBERG PUBLIC AFFAIRS, MEDIA OPERATIONS/PHOTOGRAPHER
Alternative energy is on everybody’s mind these days. California leaders have mandated that 33 percent of the state’s power come from renewable energy sources by 2020. Even the most ardent members of the “drill here, drill now!” crowd agree that diversifying our energy portfolio makes sense.

When people start talking about the particulars of alternative energy sources, the conversation is likely to touch on wind turbines, solar panels, biofuels, and geothermal sources. Now, however, there’s a different idea for the mix, and the Central Coast may get a chance to be at the forefront of the newest alternative energy source: wave power.

The concept of generating electricity from the motion of the ocean is nothing new. Offshore devices would use the rising and falling waves to generate electricity, which would then be transferred along a submarine power cable to an onshore station tied into the electrical grid. The power would be then conditioned—usually by storing it in batteries—and then sent into the grid.

It’s a simple concept, but the engineering has taken awhile to catch up to the vision. (See the sidebar for an overview of the devices themselves.)

In December, PG&E filed for a preliminary permit with the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission to begin a pilot program in the waters off of Vandenberg Air Force Base. The goal is to test the viability of a commercial wave energy project. The program would be similar to a PG&E project in Humboldt County.

The Vandenberg project would begin with an environmental study of the waters up to approximately three miles off the coast between Point Arguello and Point Conception.

“The coast through there is exposed to a number of swells from different directions,” PG&E spokesman Kory Raftery said, explaining why the company selected it for their pilot program. “Swells from the north and south could potentially provide renewable energy around the clock.”

That “around the clock” potential is key. While wind and solar play a big role in PG&E’s renewable energy portfolio, environmental factors can diminish their power output at times. No wind or no sun means no power. The stretch of coast in question, however, is rarely calm. That tumultuous water, Raftery said, has the company excited.

PG&E first started investigating wave energy in 2004. Actually, the company was told that investigating wave energy might be worth its while.

Roger Bedard is the man who told the energy giant about, well, the wave of the future. At the time, Bedard, who works for the Electric Power Research Institute, was just a guy with a dream.

“My dream was that our nation would investigate alternative energy,” he said. “We’ve looked at just about every energy source, except ocean energy, which is a huge resource right off our coast.”

Luckily, Bedard said, his job allowed him to not just dream, but to try for reality. The institute is a nonprofit funded by the electricity industry. One of its roles is looking at emerging technologies, and one of those emerging technologies is wave energy. That’s where Bedard came in.


Wave tech at a glance
How do you get electricity from ocean waves?


All electricity generation (with the exception of photovoltaic solar cells, which convert sunlight directly into electricity) is based on the concept of converting mechanical energy into electrical by means of rotating a coil of wire between the poles of a magnet.

In a coal or nuclear power plant, water heated into steam passes through a turbine, which turns the coils of wire around magnets, generating electricity. Wave energy devices—regardless of design—operate on this principle. Some devices turn a turbine, others move the coils directly. How they go about capturing the mechanical energy from the waves and use it to move their coils of wire is where the different designs come in.

Currently, there are four basic designs for wave energy devices.

Point absorbers are affixed to the ocean floor, tethered to a buoy on the surface. The tether is attached to the magnet, which rises and lowers through the coil with the motion of the water.

Oscillating water columns are a form of point absorbers, but don’t require the device to be attached to the seafloor. In this design, water enters through an opening beneath the surface into a chamber with air trapped above it. The wave action then causes the water column to move, forcing air through an opening connected to a turbine.

Attenuators are long, segmented devices that float parallel to the waves. As each segment rises and lowers, it flexes at the hinges, which are connected to hydraulic pumps or other converters to provide the mechanical energy.

Overtopping devices are large floating reservoirs filled from incoming waves to a level higher than the surrounding ocean. The water is then released and channeled through turbines as it flows back to the ocean surface.

To see animations of these designs, and for more information on wave power in general, visit the European Marine Energy Center’s website at emec.org.uk/wave_energy_devices.asp.

When he approached PG&E in 2004, he said that their renewable energy options were “wind, wind, wind, and wind.”

“It’s like your retirement portfolio: You don’t invest all your money in Enron stock, and you shouldn’t invest all of your energy portfolio in all solar or all coal,” he said. 

Bedard worked with PG&E to get the ball rolling on wave energy research, and their efforts are coming to fruition with the pilot program in Humboldt County. If all goes according to plan, the project may culminate in a five-year, five-megawatt study off the coast of Vandenberg.

PG&E spokesman Raftery said that, for now, a non-invasive environmental study and quest for public input is all that’s happening. The study, Raftery explained, is going to look at a wide range of factors.

“We’ll study the topography of the ocean floor, the different ecosystems in place, the offshore and onshore environment as a whole,” Raftery said. “We’re also hoping for input from the public as to what they’d like to see included in the study.”

Because this is such a new technology, the potential environmental impact is still being ascertained. Local environmental groups expressed cautious optimism about the concept of wave energy.

“The environmental community is basically supportive of clean energy,” said David Landecker, executive director of the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center.

He added that the center would want to be very sure any methodologies chosen for the project don’t have hidden environmental impacts.

The center’s other concern was more general: Members worry about the over-industrialization of the ocean. But in this instance, Landecker said, the restricted waters off of Vandenberg may help matters.

“There are appropriate uses of the ocean,” he said. “Many, in fact: recreation, commercial fishing, potential energy production. They just can’t all take place in the same spot. Since that’s an area [off Vandenberg] that’s off limits to most other uses anyway, it could be an appropriate location for wave energy.”

“We’re an available market and a willing buyer,” said Vandenberg’s energy manager, Bradley King, referring to the role the base would play in the project.

According to the memorandum of understanding between PG&E and the base, Vandenberg would be a direct purchaser of the power generated from the wave project.

King added that the base infrastructure would help, too.

“Our existing high voltage power lines would allow PG&E to connect their project to our infrastructure without extensive line extensions,” he explained.

The wave energy project also stands to help Vandenberg meet its own Department of Defense-mandated renewable energy goals of 25 percent by 2025.

But doing business in California is no simple task, and when your business isn’t just generating electricity, but creating an entirely new method of generating electricity, well, you can see just how complicated things can get.

No fewer than 10 separate agencies, from the federal level down to the county, have to sign off on any proposed wave energy project. PG&E’s preliminary filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is just the first step in what’s expected to be a long permitting process. And even then, final approval for a wave energy plant isn’t a foregone conclusion. In 2007, the California Public Utilities Commission rejected a proposed project between PG&E and Finerva, a Canadian renewable energy company, in part because it wouldn’t have been an economic source of power, according to the commission’s ruling.

Raftery was pragmatic about that rejection: “One of the things we have under our belt now because of the CPUC ruling is experience. We’re going to work with CPUC to try and make this project viable to our customers.”

“Viable” can cover both the technical and the financial. Bedard noted that, apart from the technical issues Finerva faced, their project was, put bluntly, minor league.

“Two megawatts is puny-small,” he said, referring to the capacity of Finerva’s proposed project. “In order for wave plants to be commercially successful, they’re going to have to be way bigger than two megawatts.”

The commission’s other reason for rejecting Finerva’s proposal demonstrated the difficulties involved with operating in a hostile environment like the ocean. Their prototype buoy sank off the coast of Oregon after just six weeks. It was supposed to last three months.

No one the Sun spoke to for this story thinks bringing wave energy devices to the commercial market will be an easy task. For one, the devices must be able to survive in one of the most hostile environments on the planet for, hopefully, 20 to 25 years. Some devices in the real world are having trouble making it two months.  

In September 2008, the world’s first commercial wave energy plant went online off the coast of Portugal with three devices generating 2.25 megawatts of electricity. According to reports, the units were taken offline in November due to leaks in the buoyancy tanks.

 But don’t let a few setbacks fool you; wave energy is moving forward. If nothing else, money talks, and government funding is helping to start a nascent wave-energy industry much the same way it did for the wind and solar industries in the ’70s.

“The United States government has to fund a lot of this early, high-risk R&D. Private companies just can’t afford to do it,” said Bedard, who’s testified before Congress on the need for such funding.

He must have had a good pitch: In 2008, Congress appropriated $10 million for wave-energy research. Last year, that number jumped to $40 million. This year, it’s $50 million, and Bedard just testified before Congress again, asking for $250 million.

 “That’d be enough money to do it,” he said.

What does all this funding ultimately buy? Or, in other words, how much energy can we expect from the ocean and how much is it going to cost?

“That’s kind of the $64,000 question,” Bedard said, noting that this is the first time anything like this project has ever been tried. “Yes, there’s 30,000 megawatts of potential energy sitting off the coast of California, but you’ll never harness all that. Providing there’s no egregious effects on the environment, we’ll just have to go in steps. It’s the only way I can imagine it.”

No one will know the “how much” until PG&E gets the results back from its pilot program. The “when”—at least where initial devices are concerned—is a little bit easier to answer. PG&E wouldn’t comment on the timetable for the Vandenberg project while it waits for the preliminary FERC permit, but according to published estimates for the Humboldt County project, construction of the devices for that pilot program could begin as of July of next year.

Sources affiliated with the Vandenberg program said, if all goes smoothly, construction of the first devices in Santa Barbara County could start by 2014.


PHOTO BY BRYAN BOYETTE, VANDENBERG PUBLIC AFFAIRS, MEDIA OPERATIONS/PHOTOGRAPHER
Of course, the key word is “smoothly.” If it works, the pilot program at Vandenberg is scheduled to last five years. Then, if it proves viable, we can all realistically expect to see the first 100-megawatt wave-energy plants around 2020, Bedard said.

“It’s long-term stuff,” said the 65-year-old.

He remembers talking with some PG&E attorneys about how many years it would take to just get the regulatory approval to build.

“They told me what a long process it is, and I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m 65! I’m not going to live to see that!’”

Still, he took some comfort from their response.

“They told me, ‘Don’t worry, Roger, we’ll put your ashes in the first unit.’”

Contact Staff Writer Nicholas Walter at nwalter@santamariasun.com.