Gavin Newsom: Still Dreamin’ of SF Wave Energy

San Francisco’s outgoing mayor Gavin Newsom has long been a champion of clean power, helping bring solar roofs and urban wind turbines to the city. But there’s one renewable energy initiative that has remained outside his grasp: using the power of the ocean to generate electricity. However, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article today, he’s not giving up on that dream, even as he transitions into the role of California’s lieutenant governor within two weeks.

Newsom tells the Chronicle that he would like to see a pilot wave project in place in the 2012-13 timeframe. That’s right; San Francisco still wants to be one of the first (if not the first!) to have a wave power farm bobbing in the ocean.

The city is working with a consulting firm URS to develop a 30-megawatt project, and URS’ report estimates the project could cost $120 million to $140 million. Newsom believes he can help the city become an early user of wave energy while he holds the statewide office.

But achieving that goal will be as difficult as a dinghy fighting the big waves. Without proven technologies and commercial farms in operations, wave power remains one of the most expensive forms of renewable energy today.

According to a study by engineering and construction firm Black & Veatch, wave energy can cost three times as much as other renewable energy sources. The levelized cost of wave energy – which includes the costs of building and operating wave farms over time – could reach about $445 per megawatt-hour, making it more expensive than solar, wind and geothermal energy.

Granted, the study was done in 2008, but given that the wave energy industry remains largely in the research-and-development phase, the estimated costs aren’t likely to have fallen much, if at all, in the past two years.

Newsom has long pushed for ocean power in the Bay Area (give this op-ed a read), without addressing the cost problems. He previously championed a project to put equipment to convert tidal power into electricity within San Francisco Bay, near the Golden Gate Bridge. But that turned out to be a bad idea largely because of the high price tag.

Utility PG&E also recently scrapped a plan to build a 5-megawatt pilot wave project off the Humboldt County cost in northern California. Again, the utility found the project was just too expensive.

PG&E had estimated that it would cost $50 million just to cover the expenses of installing the infrastructure for the power transmission, monitoring and other equipment. The figure didn’t include the cost of the equipment for converting the wave motion into energy. The utility also pegged the operating and maintenance costs at about $5 million annually, though the number didn’t include any environmental protection measures.

Although Newsom will no longer be the mayor of San Francisco, he will wield power that could help the city some day realize some kind of wave power project. As a lieutenant governor, he will sit on the State Land Commission and Ocean Protection Council, which will have some say in wave power projects. But key approval for wave power projects will have to come from the federal government, which regulates off-shore energy projects.

Then, there is the issue of technology. Developing equipment that can withstand the corrosive salt water and the tumult of the ocean environment for a long time – a power plant should last for a few decades at least – has proven more difficult than what some tech companies have anticipated. And this is one area that Newsom would likely have little power.

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Photo courtesy of Simon Law