MATT NAUMAN, Mercury News, December 18, 2007
UTILITY WILL BUY 2 MEGAWATTS FROM FACILITY BY 2012
PG&E will become the first U.S. utility to agree to buy energy from the ocean when it announces a deal today to get 2 megawatts of power by 2012 from the cold, choppy waters off the Northern California coast.
The deal, with Finavera Renewables, a Canadian company, could eventually lead to the building of a “wave farm” about 2.5 miles off the coast of Eureka in Humboldt County.
A wave farm would connect many of Finavera’s AquaBuoys, a device that forces sea water into a turbine, in a spiderlike, eight-arm pattern. The flow of ocean water turns the turbines, which in turn generate electricity. An undersea cable brings the power to shore.
Experts see lots of potential for wave energy, but they concede it’s all just beginning. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, for instance, has received about 75 applications for wave projects on both coasts and in Alaska, but hasn’t granted a single license yet.
“Wave energy is in the early stages of development,” said Uday Mathur, an energy-procurement principal for Pacific Gas & Electric. “It’s where wind power was 10 to 15 years ago.”
And Finavera’s CEO, while calling the deal “a huge boost for the industry,” said Monday that his company needs to improve its technology and get financing, and that it faces a long regulatory approval process from FERC.
The Electric Power Research Institute, Palo Alto based and industry backed, sees tremendous upside for wave energy. “An average of 37,000 megawatts of energy dissipates on California’s 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) of coastline,” according to an EPRI report released in March. “Using present-day technology, a maximum of about 20 percent of that energy could be converted into useful electricity.”
Roger Bedard, a co-author of that report and EPRI’s ocean-energy leader, sees “a lot of potential for wave energy.” He admits, though, that the FERC-approval process is fraught with uncertainties. It’s a classic Catch-22, he said – regulators want proof that wave energy will be environmentally safe, but that can’t be proven until projects are up and operating.
Jason Bak, Finavera’s chief executive officer, is both bold and cautious.
He forecasts that wave energy could someday – he won’t say when – provide 5 percent of America’s energy needs, or the equivalent of 300 gigawatts of power.
At the same time, he said, Finavera needs the power purchase agreement from PG&E to be able to raise the money to build the project.
The goal, Bak said, is to produce power that costs 5 to 8 cents per kilowatt hour, but he admits that won’t happen with PG&E’s 2-megawatt project. When? “Perhaps after 100 megawatts have been installed in the world,” he said.
Neither Finavera nor PG&E would reveal the cost of the wave-energy project.
As PG&E seeks to meet California’s mandate that it get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010, it has actively added to its power-purchase agreements in 2007 with new deals for solar (737 megawatts), wind (235 megawatts), geothermal (25.5 megawatts) and now wave power.