Renewable Energy Report, platts.com, February 4, 2008
Development of wave energy technology has accelerated in recent years as countries seek new sources of clean energy. While nations like Australia, Portugal and the UK look to set the pace in wave technology, recent moves by a US federal regulatory agency have made America a leading player, Neil Ford reports.
Wave power has long been promoted as one of the most attractive forms of renewable energy technologies, partly because the motion of the waves is perceived as being more reliable than solar or wind power.
The commercial development of wave energy has been held back by slow technological progress and the fact that there are fewer suitable locations for wave power generation than might be expected. But the number of test projects around the world has increased markedly over the past two years, and now the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has awarded its first wave power license.
Other countries remain in the race to develop wave energy technology. The UK, for example, is planning a £28 million ($55 million) wave hub off its southwest coast that would allow a range of different wave technologies to be tested over an extended period. A single transmission line would connect up to 20 MW of generating capacity to the mainland in what would be the world’s biggest wave farm.
Further north, at the European Marine Energy Center in the Orkney Islands, Pelamis wave energy converters are already being tested. Each unit, which looks like a giant caterpillar being moved up and down by the waves, has generating capacity of 3 MW, which would enable Pelamis to produce large amounts of electricity when deployed in large numbers.
Elsewhere in the UK, Trident Energy said in January that it was testing technology off the coast of Suffolk with the goal of setting up a £200 million ($395 million) wave power scheme that would dwarf anything under development.
UK wave technology developers also are searching for other prospective test sites. A project to test four Pelamis units at Aguçadora Wave Park in Portugal is currently under consideration.
The Portuguese government is encouraging investment in the park to generate Euro70 million and yield 72.5 MW in commercial generating capacity.
British firm Oceanlinx is testing its 450-kW unit at Port Kembla in Australia and its larger 1.5-MW unit in Namibia. Oceanlinx’s has signed power purchase agreements in the two countries as wave technology moves further towards commercial development.
Part of the UK government’s interest in wave power, as with wind and tidal power, stems from the country’s suitability for deploying the technology. In addition, the government is acutely aware of its failure to take a lead in developing a wind energy industry.
Though the UK is now embracing wind power generation, its hesitation allowed other countries, notably Denmark and Germany, to develop expertise in the new technology, thereby creating thousands of highly skilled jobs.
A host of research and development companies in Australia, Portugal, the UK and the US are at similar stages of development, but in America, FERC’s decision to encourage wave energy projects marks something of a breakthrough for the technology in North America. FERC said in November 2007 that it was prepared to offer licenses for all forms of hydrokinetic technology “in appropriate circumstances,” even when other permits have not been secured.
“Issuing conditioned licenses for hydrokinetic technologies will have no environmental impact, will not diminish the authority of the states or other federal agencies, and will improve the ability of project developers to secure the financing of demonstration projects,” the agency said.
US Push for Wave Energy
FERC Chairman Joseph Kelliher said he is keen to ensure that hydrokinetic projects are developed as quickly as possible and that future licensing procedures would take at most six months for test projects with generating capacity of less than 5 MW.
Just three weeks later, Finavera Renewables Ocean Energy Ltd secured a license for its 1-MW Makah Bay Offshore Wave Pilot Project off the coast of Waatch Point in Washington State, where it will deploy four of its 250-kW steel wave energy conversion AquaBuOYs.
The company plans to test its technology by connecting the four giant buoys to a shore station through a 3.7-mile subsea transmission line.
The project will be located about two nautical miles off the coast in an area with suitable wave strength.
The shore station will be linked to the local distribution grid though a 12-kV line that is expected to supply about 1,500 MWh a year, enough to power 150 area homes. Under the terms of the license, development work must begin within 24 months, with the scheme brought on stream inside 36 months.
The license is dependent on FERC implementing measures to mitigate any environmental effects from the scheme. The impact of the electromagnetic field emitted by the transmission line on marine mammals is a particular concern that must be carefully monitored.
In addition, noise must be kept to a minimum, and the company must ensure that the transmission line is kept free of debris and that its buoys do not interfere with navigation.
Finavera’s partners on the scheme include Energy Northwest, Puget Sound Energy and ashington State University, while, as on many hydrokinetic projects in both America and Canada, the local Native American tribe, the Makah Indian Nation, is also heavily involved.
“The Makah Nation is pleased to join with Finavera in a new energy venture – capturing electricity from the infinite wave energy power that results from the gravitational pull of the moon,” said tribal council Chairman Ben Johnson.
The project, though, has hit rough waters. The Washington state Department of Ecology charged this month that FERC violated federal clean water laws when it issued the license before the project was cleared by the ecology department. In a complaint filed with FERC, the ecology department asked that the federal agency rehear the federal agency’s December 21, 2007 order that gave conditional approval to the Makah Bay project.
The ecology department’s filing with FERC also strikes at the commission’s hydrokinetic policy statement released shortly before it issued the license, in which the commission said it can issue tidal energy licenses “even though certain authorizations required from other entities are outstanding.”
The state agency said that the federal Clean Water Act precludes FERC from issuing a license before the ecology department issues a water quality certificate.
Ecology department officials also said that the federal Coastal Zone Management Act prevents FERC from issuing such a license before Finavera obtained a “consistency concurrence” from the ecology department stating that the project license was consistent with the CZMA.
Along with the Makah Bay scheme, Finavera is either testing or plans to test the various forms of its AquaBuOY in Coos County, Oregon; Mendocino Country, California; Ucluelet in British Colombia, Canada; Figueira da Foz in Portugal and also in South Africa.
Pacific Gas and Electric said in December 2007 that it had signed a power purchase agreement with Finavera for all electricity from a 2-MW wave project, expected to be in place by 2012, off the northern California coast of Humboldt County.
The company says that different size buoys can be used in varying numbers to provide anything up to hundreds of megawatts from a single location. Finavera plans to develop a 5-MW scheme,eventually increasing to 100 MW, at the Coos Country site.
The company appeared to suffer a setback to its trial in Oregon in November 2007, however, when a $2 million AquaBuOY 2.0 sank just a day before it was set to be taken ashore following the completion of its three-month test. Finavera insists that the buoy had only been designed to last for the test period rather than for the many years required by a commercial wave power scheme.
“For the purpose of the project, it [the test] was highly successful,” company Vice President for Business Development Kevin Bannister said.
Still, the cause of the loss of the buoy remains unknown, although the company believes that the sinking is connected with the float technology rather than the power production section of the unit.
Finavera is looking to recover the 40-ton buoy to investigate the cause, but it expects to have to wait until the end of the winter to salvage it. It remains uncertain whether the loss of the Oregon buoy will prove a long-term setback for Finavera. As the company is awaiting the outcome of other license applications to FERC, it appears its AquaBuOYs will be tested over several years.
Interest in wave, current and tidal projects is certainly increasing. FERC did not receive a single application for a preliminary license to develop a hydrokinetic project, yet there were 88 permits pending by the end of 2007.
The commission estimates that the US could produce as much electricity from current, tidal and wave power projects as from its large hydropower sector.
Given that large hydroelectric schemes currently have combined generating capacity of 80 GW in the US this is a heady claim, but it underlines FERC’s new interest in hydrokinetic technologies. Though wave energy sector lags far behind wind, geothermal and biomass in the pecking order of renewable technologies, it boasts advantages in reliability and lack of impact on visual landscapes.
Yet, as in the wind power sector, a variety of niche development companies are currently promoting very different technologies, many of which must be brought into commercial use before the range of options can be whittled down to the most effective options.
Wave power generation is many years away from becoming a significant part of the global renewables mix, but investment in research and development is increasing and clear progress is being made. Finavera’s license might just be a small step forward for the industry, but it brings more countries into the field as technological competition begins to heat up.