Ocean power: Still DOA

The giant crashing waves that make for scenic photo ops on California’s coastline have also long enticed tech developers to try to harness that power for electricity generation. But so far, they haven’t been able to catch a wave, er, break in building a power plant at sea.

The latest casualty of an attempt to develop ocean power projects came from the Sonoma County Water Agency, which secured preliminary permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to study the possibility of developing projects off its shore in Northern California. FERC recently canceled the permits because the water agency couldn’t find the funds to do the projects, reported a local newspaper, the Press Democrat.

The water agency cinched three permits in 2009 to study the feasibility of building three projects of 5 MW each off its coast, according to the FERC website. The permits were set to expire next June. But the agency couldn’t find the $2-3 million to start the work.

The news reflects once again the difficulty of turning the churning power of ocean waves and currents into electricity, particularly in California. The state requires its utilities to increase the amount of renewable electricity in their energy mix, so the state has been at the forefront of renewable energy development.

History of wave power falling short

In fact, its largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, invested time and money into exploring ocean power but decided to suspend the effort. PG&E had been looking at sites for pilot projects off the coast of Mendocino, Humboldt and Santa Barbara counties. It then ditched them one by one because of technical difficulties, higher than expected costs and strong protests from local communities.

Former San Francisco mayor and now California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom also has been a champion of wave power. Last December, before he began his job in the state government, Newsom talked about his intention to promote state policies that would encourage ocean power development.

Developing equipment that can withstand 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. That has put ocean power development largely in the research and development phase, with some pilot projects deployed here and there around the world.

Federal funding

The U.S. Department of Energy is trying to help the development along by funding some projects, including $37 million to 27 projects it announced last September. That amount is tiny compared with the DOE’s funding for other forms of renewable energy, such as solar. In the past two years, the DOE has been running a loan guarantee program to help developers find money for building renewable energy power plants, and most of the money has gone to solar and wind projects.

Given the importance of federal support for renewable energy development – renewable electricity is more expensive than power from fossil fuel power plants – it’s not surprising that utilities such as PG&E will focus their efforts on solar and wind and not on ocean power. Monday, the utility announced it has signed an agreement to buy wind power from a 163 MW farm.

The FERC has granted preliminary permits for other water-related energy projects in California, but those projects only involve conventional hydropower or energy storage.

Photos courtesy of Donnaphoto via Flickr, Fields of View.