Wave-Energy Study Seeks Funding

By Published On: November 6, 2004

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is proposing a 750 kW pilot project west of San Francisco to begin to answer technological questions about the efficacy of wave power on the coast. The city’s public utilities commission is now weighing EPRI’s draft study and may decide early next year whether to raise funds for design and engineering studies, possibly in collaboration with Oakland and other Bay Area governments. But staff for EPRI and the city are frustrated that a key funder-the California Energy Commission-is not supporting wave-energy work because it has yet to complete an assessment of California’s wave-energy potential. A study commissioned three years ago has been sidelined by a commission staffing shortage and a somewhat mysterious case of competing investigators. While most of California’s population congregates along the coast, the availability of more traditional renewable energy-photovoltaics, geothermal, and wind-is limited. However, using wave action, as well as tides, holds promise-though a way to tough out the pounding, and often extreme, physical hurdles has yet to be found. EPRI targeted a site offshore from San Francisco’s Ocean Beach as one of five places in U.S. coastal waters where it proposes to set up research, development, and demonstration studies of wave-energy converters (WECs). The other sites are off Coos Bay, Oregon, and off the coasts of Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Maine. The cities of San Francisco and Oakland partially funded EPRI’s initial project in 2001. San Francisco suggested the Ocean Beach site, where an outfall pipe from the Oceanside Wastewater Treatment Plant would provide a convenient route for a transmission cable. If funded, the proposed project would deploy one or more 750 kW wave-action devices made by Ocean Power Delivery of Scotland, known as Pelamis. The 120-meter-long torpedo-shaped device has four linked tubes that move independently with wave action. At the three joints where the tubes meet, hydraulic pistons use the motion of the ocean to run 250 kW generators. Roger Bedard, EPRI’s manager for the wave-energy study, says Pelamis was one of the first WECs to successfully feed electricity to an onshore grid. He said there may be other WECs ready for prime time, adding that they likely won’t be made in the U.S. because of its lack of investment in wave-energy research and development. WECs have been around for decades, but the early devices tended to fall apart in big storms. A new crop of WECs has been engineered to endure harsher ocean conditions because of international R&D investments. “The second generation [of WECs], which started in the 1990s, were designed based on three factors: survivability, survivability, and survivability,” Bedard said. Bedard hopes to attract Energy Commission funding for the next phase of EPRI’s study but has been frustrated by what he characterizes as a lack of action by the commission’s staff. He noted that the CEC funded a San Diego State University wave-energy resource study, which was completed two years ago, but it has yet to publish the results. “They say they cannot spend a penny on wave energy until they publish the report,” he said. According to CEC spokesperson Percy Della, the draft report by San Diego State University’s Asfaw Beyene was “too technical and did not answer the environmental and economic impacts we set out to study.” Thus, the CEC commissioned a second report, by consultant and WEC entrepreneur Mirko Previsic. In the meantime, the CEC’s project manager was sidelined by a medical condition, and the report was on the back burner until recently, when another staff person was assigned to it. Della estimated that the final report would be published in two months. Drafts of the two reports agree on some key points: that the best wave-energy sites are located north of Point Conception; that the total energy potential at these primary sites is 21,589 MW; and that the first commercial-scale wave farms would probably deliver electricity at 7 to 8 cents/kWh. They disagree sharply on the capacity that WECs could be expected to deliver-a critical funding factor-and the number of sites that could be developed. Beyene said he was surprised that a second report had been drafted. “I know Mr. Previsic received our final report from CEC for a review,” Beyene stated. “I don’t know why and how he lists himself as the author.” He also noted that he and his colleagues are working on better estimating models. <i>Circuit</i> was unable to contact Previsic.

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