People have dreamed for centuries of tapping the immense power of moving ocean water to generate electricity, and now it is beginning to happen. In Europe, two experimental wave energy projects are already feeding electricity into their nations' grids. A small facility off the coast of Scotland has been operating for more than seven years, and the world's first commercial wave farm, off the coast of Portugal, began operations in September.
Experimental systems are in various stages of development in many countries, including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Australia, Canada, and Japan. In the United States, pilot plants are being planned in Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and California. Amid rising concern about climate change and the future of fossil fuels, the promise of endlessly renewable, emissions-free electricity is increasingly attractive.
Ocean waves generate an enormous amount of energy, and wave power may be more reliable than solar or wind energy; it also does not carry the negative side-effects of biofuels now being promoted. But the challenge of converting the waves' power to energy humans can use is also enormous, both technologically--the machines must be able to survive extreme conditions with minimumal maintenance--and socially, due to potential conflicts with other ocean values and uses.
The first (and so far only) study to evaluate the U.S. potential for ocean wave power development was conducted in 2004 by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Palo Alto, a nonprofit think tank created by the utilities some 30 years ago to undertake scientific and technological research supporting the utilities industry. In a report released in 2007, EPRI estimated that the potential for wave power generation in the United States is up to 6.5 percent of current electrical consumption, the same as all conventional hydropower. In this state, the California Energy Commission released a report in 2008 estimating that wave power could potentially supply up to seven or eight gigawatts of energy, about one quarter of the total used statewide in 2006. Due to the many constraints, however, much less is likely to be developed.
If wave power proves successful, however, and large-scale projects are developed, conservationists warn that their cumulative impacts on ocean processes, marine life, and human uses of the waves will need to be taken into account.
Getting First Dibs
In 2006 and 2007, a kind of wave power "gold rush" hit the West Coast of the United States, especially northern California and Oregon. Technology companies, local governments, and the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) raced to stake claims with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for areas offshore at sites that are believed to have the best potential for developing wave power projects. Between March 2006 and February 2007, FERC received applications for more than 40 preliminary permits for projects on the West Coast. To date, it has granted permits to seven applicants for five sites in Oregon and four in California--three in Humboldt County, one in Mendocino County.
A hydrokinetic preliminary permit from FERC grants a company priority over a specified area for up to three years, to study the feasibility of developing a wave power project there. It also grants the holder first preference for the longterm FERC license needed to begin constructing a facility. Companies that did not act quickly once the rush began risked being locked out of prime wave power areas for 30 to 50 years, the time period for which FERC licenses are issued.