By Sandi Hansen INDEX-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER January 3, 2008
In the ongoing search for renewable energy sources, the Sonoma County Water Agency is embarking on a long-range goal of potentially harnessing ocean waves to create a hydrokinetic energy project.
The county Board of Supervisors recently gave the water agency permission to apply to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a permit to conduct feasibility testing of wave energy off the Sonoma Coast.
The SCWA is the largest electric power user in the North Bay and has been aggressively developing and acquiring renewable sources, paying a lot of attention to Northern California counties which are already seeing large private companies taking control of offshore water rights for energy development. “We are unfortunately faced with a lawless land rush situation in our offshore water rights right now,” said Richard Charter, who is with Defenders of Wildlife. “Either we wait for Chevron or a utility giant to take control of the Sonoma Coast, as has recently been happening in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, or our own Board of Supervisors acts proactively to assert local control.”
It’s been reported that a Canadian company, Finavera Renewables, is in the process of developing the country’s first commercial wave-energy facility off the Humboldt County coast, and has struck a deal with PG&E to begin delivering electricity to its customers in Northern and Central California in approximately four years.
Meanwhile, the board granted approval in November for the water agency to proceed with the feasibility studies of the Sonoma Coast wave-energy project. “The application is on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s desk and we’re waiting to hear from them,” said SCWA Capital Projects Manager Cordell Stillman.
The next step, pending FERC approval, said Stillman, would be putting together a list of stakeholders on the coast to use as a think tank. “We want to bring everybody to the table and lay everything out and know what the issues are going to be so we know what we have to deal with,” Stillman said. If approved, the pilot-project license will give the water agency a three-year window in which to study the site. During this period of time, and provided SCWA is making demonstrated progress in evaluating the site, no other applicant may propose a project in the same area.
Issues are sure to include environmental and aesthetic impacts including effects on habitat, endangered species and the fishing industry; developing the emerging technology of harnessing wave energy; power transmission feasibility; and cost, among others.
According to the SCWA preliminary plan, the area proposed for study encompasses the entire coast of Sonoma County from just off shore to a distance of 12 miles out and excludes all known marine sanctuaries.
If a suitable technology is determined, hydrokinetic energy could ultimately produce between one-third to one-half of Sonoma County’s future energy needs.
Stillman believes it’s likely to be three to four years before the water agency would be able to do the wave-energy pilot program but it’s worth it. “It’s better to be proactive and have a local agency in charge of (an energy project) off the Sonoma Coast rather than an outside agency or company. I’m remaining cautiously optimistic.”