RALPH THOMAS, Seattle Times Olympia Bureau, December 21, 2007
OLYMPIA — The waters off Makah Bay near the tip of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula could become home to the world’s first commercial wave-energy project.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on Thursday issued its first license for a so-called hydrokinetic energy project to British Columbia-based Finavera Renewables, a company working to develop wind- and wave-energy projects in the U.S., Canada, Ireland and South Africa.
If all goes as planned, Finavera’s Makah Bay Wave Pilot Project would begin generating enough electricity to supply at least 150 homes by 2011.
“This is very, very significant,” Jason Bak, Finavera’s CEO, said Thursday. “The road has pretty much been cleared for us.”
But the company still must find investors for the project and someone to buy the power. And, under conditions of the FERC license, Finavera cannot begin construction until it gets all the necessary environmental permits.
Still, the company and federal regulators hailed Thursday’s action.
“Today is historic as we enter a new energy frontier,” FERC Commissioner Philip Moeller said in a written statement. “For the first time, we allow the harnessing of electricity from wave-energy power that results from the gravitational pull of the moon.”
Finavera is one of several companies racing to develop technology to capture hydrokinetic energy along the wind-swept coastline of the Pacific Northwest — where waves big enough to generate power are present nearly all the time.
To date, Finavera is the only company that has sought an FERC license to move ahead on a project. But numerous companies have applied for permits to begin studying proposed projects.
A Seattle-based company, for instance, has applied for a permit to conduct a feasibility study on what would be a massive wind- and wave-energy farm along a 28-square-mile stretch along the coast at Westport and Ocean Shores, Grays Harbor County.
Finavera also is hoping to develop a wave-energy project off the coast of Northern California, where earlier this week the company announced a power-purchasing agreement with a major U.S. utility.
Bak said another company’s proposed wave-energy project in Portugal is the only other one worldwide that is nearing commercial status.
Ideas abound for capturing wave power, including some that are quite elaborate. Finavera’s approach sounds fairly simple: wave-energy buoys that use the heaving motion of the ocean to drive a piston that forces seawater through a turbine.
This fall, the company deployed its first test wave-energy buoy off the coast of Newport, Ore.
The 75-foot-tall prototype buoy performed well, Bak said. But when the company was trying to retrieve the buoy, it began taking on water and sank.
The company hopes it can figure out what went wrong after it retrieves the buoy during the first good weather break next month.
Finavera’s Makah Bay project calls for four wave-energy buoys, each capable of producing 250 kilowatts of power. The buoys would be connected to a nearly 4-mile-long underwater transmission line that would carry the electricity to shore, where it would be fed into the grid through a Clallam County Public Utility District line.
The PUD has twice signed agreements to purchase power from the project, but both expired. An official from the utility said it would be “very interested” in renewing the agreement.
According to Finavera, the aquatic portions of the project would fall within state waters as well as within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and the Washington State Flattery Rocks National Wildlife Refuge.
Bak said the company needs to get permits from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said he isn’t aware of any required state permits.
In a news release announcing the license, FERC said Finavera must develop a plan for monitoring the underwater transmission cable to make sure it remains in place and doesn’t entangle debris. The company also must assess whether noise from the buoys will have any impact on marine mammals.
The license also gives FERC authority to shut down or remove the project if it is found to be harming the environment.
Bak said one of the biggest challenges will be finding investors. He pointed out that investors have poured billions of dollars into developing solar and biofuel technologies.
“Now we need to see some of that capital come into wave energy,” Bak said.