Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series, in which the author looks at the potential of marine energy off California, focused on the Mendocino Coast. Part 1 looked at wind energy. Part 2 is a look back and into the future of wave energy.
FORT BRAGG, 6/8/21 — Imagine a gigantic electric plug coming out of the ocean that could provide power from waves offshore for Fort Bragg, Mendocino, Eureka and more. That was once the coastal vision of wave energy proponents ranging from Southern California real estate speculators to oil giant Chevron. But that wave of proposals, led by PG&E’s WaveConnect, disappeared more than a decade ago.
Now, the eyes of the renewable energy world are back on West Coast waters. The industry now hopes that power plug in from offshore will come from towering far offshore wind turbines that would permanently sit atop anchored floating platforms, interviews with top industry and regulatory leaders show — with Morro Bay and Humboldt County leading the way in emerging wind energy proposals off California. A major announcement was made Tuesday, May 25 on this subject
In part two of a two-part series that began with a look at what is happening in wind energy off California, this article tackles wave energy off California with looks at the dramatic history and how high the hopes are that the ocean can help power a renewable economy. We talked to more than a dozen experts in the field, including wave and wind energy developers, regulators and non-profits. Among the most prominent were Tim Ramsey, head of marine and hydrokinetic energy for the U.S Department of Energy and Jason Busch, executive director of the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust in Portland. Part one focused on wind energy. This second part focuses on wave and tidal energy. There are currently no plans or proposals for wave energy development north of the Bay Area but the technology is evolving quickly for small scale use powering what is commonly called “the blue economy” and testing of larger scale devices is planned in Oregon, which could offer power solutions from rivers to oceanfront towns.
Advocates for marine energy say there is no way that humankind can meet the challenge of climate change without tapping the ocean for renewable energy. Although the environmental process involving more than a dozen regulatory agencies has been streamlined over much over the past decade big questions remain. Many ocean protection advocates, from the environmental and fishing communities to the Surfrider Foundation, say the risk to an already compromised ocean is high and the greatest of care must be followed..
Wave energy goes big by going small
Wave energy is no longer envisioned as powering the grid anytime in the next decade but studies are underway that could result in wave energy being paired with many uses at sea including desalinization technology, to bring fresh water to the increasing number of dry spots on the globe.
One Boston-based company, Resolute Marine, has developed a small scale wave energy device that produces fresh water from the motion of ocean waves through a reverse osmosis converter. Resolute Marine is in the process of developing the technology in two places in the African, Cape Verde and South Africa, but the small submerged intake device with onshore reverse osmosis tanks could also work in drought plagued places like Fort Bragg. Resolute Marine’s wave energy and desalination device is also being developed in Oregon for creating fresh water and power during the long feared Cascadia earthquake disaster, when millions across the Pacific Northwest could be left for weeks without water and power, says CEO Bill Staby.
Offshore wind energy funding and research now hitting a high point around the world, is likely to give a boost to other forms of power from the ocean, industry and government reports say. A new swell of study and interest in marine wave hydrokinetic wave, tidal and current energy, including California’s first ocean-based tests of wave energy, is rising across the world, just in time for expected increased funding and interest from the Biden Administration’ increased funding and push for offshore power. Now, with a major wave energy experiment happening off Oregon that was launched in March, the United States could finally begin catching up in the field of renewable marine energy in the future. Hydrokinetic energy is considered a different scientific and regulatory animal than hydroelectric energy that powers dams.
Instead of requiring the tangle of cables and facilities needed to plug into the power grid, the new wave energy breaking right now would create much smaller wave energy power plants that work at sea producing power in the same way a diesel generator would, said Tim Ramsey, who has been in charge of marine energy for the U.S Department of Energy since 2005.
Ramsey said while major wave energy for the grid to power homes and towns is probably a decade off, much smaller scaled projects are on the way sooner and could change the world of ocean research by providing clean power at sea. They could also work for the likes of wind power plants that feed the grid, offshore aquaculture and scientific research.
“There are thousands upon thousands of sensors that are out in the water all the time involved in research. There are little remote operated vehicles that are cruising around collecting samples. These machines are running on batteries and sometimes when they wear out they just go to the bottom of the ocean,” said the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust’s Busch.
“The industry is developing ways right now for those remote operated vehicles to come to a docking station underwater, that is powered by wave energy device on the surface, that allows that machine to come in, automatically dock and recharge its batteries.”
Fort Bragg City Councilman Lindy Peters has long pushed for desalination as a way to provide the city a new water source and local self-sufficiency in a time when climate change is expected to make fresh water scarcer everywhere, including in the Noyo River. The idea has been met with interest and initial support for exploring the idea from some other council members in recent years and now Fort Bragg faces a critical water shortage.
Bill Staby, co-founder and CEO of Boston, based, Resolute Marine, said California would be ideal for the wave energy-desalination device if only it weren’t for the very long time it takes to get permitting done in California. Resolute was contacted by officials in Santa Barbara during the 2017 drought, but the timeframe turned out to be too long.
Staby said upfront capital costs would be higher right now than for a desalination plant powered by fossil fuels, but in the long term the wave energy and sea water are both renewable resources and can present a solution better fitting with climate change and ecological values.
“Wave Energy is ideal for desalination, particularly reverse osmosis desalination process,” he said, explaining that the consistency and permanence of the power source create an obvious opportunity for both renewable energy and water for a coastal community.
After hearing about the Resolute Marine Energy device, Peters said he would contact Staby and find out more.
For now, the city is taking small scale desalinization seriously but not with wave energy. John Smith, public works director for the city of Fort Bragg said a small, conventional desalination device is in the works that will have multiple uses.
“We are working on plans for a skid mounted reverse osmosis desal treatment system. This is expected to be a 200 gallons per minute unit that will filter brackish water from our existing intake at the Noyo River. We are working with an engineering firm to provide specs and a procurement memo for treatment equipment vendors,” Smith said, in an email.
California’s first in water wave energy devices emerging
California’s first-ever in-sea study of marine wave energy is now planned for 1000 feet off the pier at the Scripps Research Institute facility in San Diego. CalWave, a private company emerged from a prize winning entry for a device resembling a seafloor carpet and to take a leading role in the California industry. The carpet idea led to work on numerous other approaches from buoys, to various seafloor-based pressure devices, said Marcus Lehmann, CEO and founder of CalWave, in an interview.
Hopes are for the project to hit the water in 2021. The tiny device to be tested is intended to be a small scale generator to provide wave energy to offshore uses such as aquaculture farms and research projects not connected to shore. This is thought to be the first in the ocean test for wave energy in California by Ramsey and others interviewed.
There is one experimental tidal energy project in the works for the San Francisco Bay, which would be the first tidal energy project to hit the water in California if plans continue.
“The Biden Administration is interested in expanding alternative energy generation. We expect that to include more interest in the kind of project we are doing and to expand into other projects,” said Sheikh Nayeem, who heads up that tidal energy project for CalMaritime, a California State University research station in Vallejo. The plan there is for an experimental project to harness 5-10 kilowatt hours of energy from the tides that flow through the Carquinez Straits at the north end of San Francisco Bay. Nayeem said the timetable is to hit the water in about three years.
New wave energy testing center in Oregon will put US back to forefront
There are still much bigger dreams of clean energy for the grid from waves, but those are seen as more than a decade off. In addition to the Southern California test, CalWave also plans to be part of a new major grid-plugged wave energy research project off Oregon announced in February called PacWave that has brought wave energy back into the headlines. With so much research ready to hit the ocean, the US is back to the forefront of world wave energy development. The Oregon State University Pac Wave project, to be at the center of USA wave energy research, beat out a California proposal through Cal Poly San Luis Opisbo.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced earlier this year the issuance of a 25-year lease off Oregon for what would be the first wave energy research project in federal waters off the U.S. West Coast. The project was then issued a license in March by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, making way for the project to conduct experiments and plug into the power grid, possibly by this summer which would be a huge groundbreaking moment for wave energy.
Fort Bragg once had big role in wave energy
More than a decade ago ocean waters off Fort Bragg and Mendocino (and much of California and Oregon) were permitted during a regulatory process conducted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Between 2007-2012, FERC granted preliminary permits in state near-shore water to these companies. FERC did not put the state of California, much less the county and city, in the loop before doing so. This created an uproar in which counties in Oregon and California filed for their own preliminary permits. Northern and Central California cities and counties, including the city of Fort Bragg became involved in the issue both locally and nationally.
At the same time, the Minerals Management Service (Now BOEM) had its own competing wave energy leasing-permitting process in those further offshore federal waters. During the last 10 years competition between federal agencies has evolved into a collaborative regulatory and permitting process between the independent federal FERC, the federal BOEM and Ramsey’s marine and hydrokinetic energy office at DOE, which leads research and funding in marine energy.
Ultimately FERC and Minerals Management Service ended up coming to tiny Fort Bragg to gather information on the issue of wave energy. The federal agencies said they had heard more about it from the Mendocino Coast than anywhere else in the nation, sources at the federal agencies at the time said.
FERC’s failure to include the California State Lands Commission in the process ultimately killed the entire process in the state. Commercial fishers strongly opposed wave energy permits, as did many environmentalists, saying the cables used could entangle whales and fishing nets and cause other damage to the ocean. A huge scandal involving oil companies, sex parties and MMS officials ultimately killed that federal agency. Then President Barack Obama’s Administration created BOEM to replace MMS. Lessons learned during this process and in particular the extensive documentation of the process by PG&E’s Wave Connect program have helped inform the process now underway, industry leaders said. The Central Coast city of Morro Bay has since been at the center of wave energy proposals, with little more to show for all its efforts than Fort Bragg so far.
Alaska, Hawaii have leading roles
The U.S Navy operates a wave energy test site for wave energy off Hawaii. Islands, especially those in warmer waters have tremendous marine energy potential according to the Department of Energy. Tiny Samoa has more marine energy power potential than the entire Atlantic and Pacific lower 48 coasts of the USA combined (minus Alaska and Hawaii), according to figures provided by DOE. (see graphic)
One of the most important places for developing ocean wave and tidal energy, oddly, has been inland Alaska, where devices similar to those that would be used in tidal energy have been placed in rivers to provide power to towns where energy costs are astronomical. In Igiugig, Alaska, the Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) has demonstrated its 40-kW RivGen Power System in the Kvichak River. It operated throughout 2020 and proved its ability to survive the harsh Alaskan winters. A second RivGen® Power System is being prepared for deployment at Igiugig this summer. These devices have demonstrated working hydrokinetic power generation relevant to ocean and tidal devices in the future in a variety of small scale technologies, DOE’s Ramsey said.
Hydrokinetic energy is a very big wild card in the alternative energy world. It converts comparatively dense energy from naturally moving water into electrical power. Marine energy includes hydrokinetics in the form of power from ocean currents, tides and waves. Non-hydrokinetic marine energy includes temperature gradient proposals, which generate power by moving from warm upper waters to frigid ocean depths. Hydrokinetic proposals are also often found in rivers, such as a successful proposal powering an Alaskan village through in-river hydrokinetic devices. The success of that project has helped drive research and development of hydrokinetics in rivers, tides and oceans, Ramsey said.
Hydrokinetic technology is ancient
Other than fire, hydrokinetics is one of the world’s oldest sources of power, having turned grain grinding wheels for millenia. The Ancient Romans even created an ocean tidal energy in Britain that also turned water wheels, called tidal mills.
Hydrokinetic energy can come from ocean waves, tides, ocean currents or river flow. Wave energy flows at the same rate night and day, making it very attractive to combine with alternative energy technologies like solar and offshore wind, which vary by the time of day, leaving the grid with much more stable power sources. (Solar produces in the day while offshore wind power is much greater at night and wind power in general is greater at night).
As big as the ideas have been over the decades to tap wave energy, the power of the ocean’s storms, corrosion and currents so far has always much bigger. Wave energy was a very unpopular idea in Fort Bragg during the four years it was in local headlines 2007-2011, opposed by environmentalists, fishing interests and those who wanted more local involvement in the planning and the jobs.
Permits were issued to major corporations and PG&E before local and state government even knew the process existed.(See protest photo)
A big part of what the big Pac Wave experiment off Oregon is to understand and mitigate environmental issues, as well as finding the most productive and efficient technology for producing power. Six ocean energy converters, two turbine designs and three control and power take-off systems are receiving awards from DOE to work there, as well as a project that will help with permitting for a total of 12 projects, Ramsey said. The DOE estimated in 2020 there were 25 tidal ocean energy and 50 wave energy companies in the U.S. In 2019, the global wave energy market was valued at $43.8 million and is expected to more than triple by 2027, according to the DOE.
One of the most dramatic proposals was for wave energy from Morro Bay that would have used an old 1950s former PG&E power plant with 150 foot smokestacks, as a link to offshore power. The City of Morro Bay had signed a contract with GWave, which developed a huge ship-like device and actually built one in Louisiana before disappearing from the scene with the promise once more remaining in the dream realm.
Scotland has been a leader in studying wave energy since the modern beginnings of wave energy research since the 1970s when Professor Stephen Salter of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland invented Salter’s Duck, the first working wave energy device. The curved bobbing, duck showed great potential in test pools but was never deployed to sea. Wave energy pioneers have been working back and forth between the emerging industries in Australia, the USA, China and Japan and the most evolved testing and deployment areas like England and Scotland for wave energy and Portugal and France for floating wind energy technology.
Types of Marine and Hydrokinetic energy
Marine and hydrokinetic power sources find themselves regulated and researched by many of the same agencies. These are the basic types of power obtained from ocean and water motion processes:
Wave energy- Hydrokinetic marine power from the motion of ocean waves
Tidal Energy- Hydrokinetic marine power from the moving of the tides.
Ocean current energy- Hydrokinetic power from the motion of ocean currents like the Gulf Stream
River Hydrokinetics- Energy from the motion of rivers, using the same principles as tidal and ocean current energy
Temperature gradient power- Power acquired by devices that move from frigid ocean depths to the surface. Not considered hydrokinetic power
Hydroelectric power- Is produced by the energy of water falling through turbines to lower elevations below. It is not commonly thought of as hydrokinetic power.
A kilowatt (kW) is 1,000 watts, a megawatt (MW) is 1,000 kilowatts, a gigawatt (GW) is 1,000 megawatts, and a terawatt (TW) is 1,000 gigawatts. Electricity is typically measured in hours, so one kilowatt hour is using a 1000 watt device continuously for one hour.
How much electricity does a home use?
In 2019, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 10,649 kilowatt hours (kWh), an average of about 877 kWh per month. Louisiana had the highest annual electricity consumption at 14,787 kWh per residential customer, and Hawaii had the lowest at 6,296 kWh per residential customer. (U.S Energy Information Administration)
The U.S Energy Information Administration provides answers to many questions about power generation and use at:https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=97&t=3