MADDALENA JACKSON with MendoCoastCurrent edit, The Sacramento Bee, August 11, 2008
California’s North Coast, however, holds promise of another energy bounty.
In less time than it would take to fire up new offshore oil drills, waters off our coast could host undulating buoys driven by waves, producing abundant electricity for a power-thirsty state.
The Electric Power Research Institute estimates enough wave power can be extracted from coastal waters to account for about 15% of California’s electricity production.
Offshore wave technology is promising, but it’s untried. They also raise concerns about potential damage to the coast’s prized vistas and fish industry.
One proposal that’s progressing is to draw electricity from waves off the Mendocino coast already has generated problems for developers, government agencies and coastal residents.
Moreover, the potential for waves depends on someone building transmission lines to connect offshore power to the state’s grid.
Northern California’s biggest utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., may be that someone.
Out at sea, the ocean’s surface ripples rhythmically, and the up-and-down motion can be harnessed to produce electrical energy, via bobbing buoys, jointed snakes and undulating tubes.
PG&E plans to capture some of that potential. It has preliminary permits for two projects – one off Fort Bragg in Mendocino County and one off Eureka.
The Fort Bragg project, expected to yield 40 megawatts of electricity, would be “an undersea power plug,” said PG&E project manager Bill Toman. It “would provide about 20% of electricity consumption of Mendocino County.”
PG&E would build the expensive transmission lines. The utility would select three or four developers to test their power generators.
Results will lead to “a decision about whether we would build our own wave energy farm,” he said.
Mendocino coast residents are examining PG&E’s plans with cautious concern.
“Wave energy sounds like a good idea, as long as it doesn’t harm the environment,” said Bruce Lewis, a nature photographer and volunteer light-keeper at the Point Cabrillo Light Station. “Using the power of the waves seems like a better way of generating power than building oil platforms off the coast.”
Others are wary. “When you first hear about it, you think, ‘That’s a great idea!’ ” said Jim Martin, director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.
He’s concerned wave power may interfere with fisheries. He wonders if electrical signatures from the devices also might disturb fish.
His biggest complaint right now, however, is that local fishermen and residents have had no say in the planning.
Martin is also associated with Fishermen Interested in Safe Hydrokinetics, or FISH. With local lawyer Elizabeth Mitchell, FISH is battling for a role in the planning.
A federal deadline has passed for gaining an official voice in the legal planning for the wave projects, alongside PG&E and federal energy regulators.
Mitchell has filed a request for a belated entree with the Federal Electric Regulatory Commission. She argues that an isolated community, with limited high-speed Internet service, and few residents who even know what FERC is, could not have met the deadline.
Mitchell said she’s concerned that permits have been granted without environmental analysis or even identified technology. “We are guinea pigs for a worldwide science experiment without any rational planning.”
PG&E’s permit comes from FERC. But there is a question over wave power jurisdiction. The federal Minerals Management Service has jurisdiction from three to 200 miles offshore, and by years end hopes to have rules in place for alternative energy leases, said spokesman John Romero.
FERC, however, oversees onshore hydropower applications and has claimed jurisdiction for wave technology up to 12 miles offshore, based on its reading of legal documents.
“It’s a problem for anyone in charge of proposing a project,” PG&E’s Toman said. “At some point, it will hold things up.”
A delay would be welcome, Martin said. “A huge reason people come up here is to look at the ocean, and to reconnect with nature.”