ISABEL ORDONEZ, Dow Jones News Service, October 6, 2008
Surfers aren’t the only ones itching to jump in the water and catch some big waves.
Dozens of companies, from oil giant Chevron Corp. to smaller firms like Ocean Power Technologies Inc., have invested in or are evaluating the potential of technology designed to harness electrical energy from waves, tides and currents.
Ocean Power, of Pennington, N.J., and Verdant Power Inc., of New York, are among the firms that already have built or plan to build wave and tidal power stations in oceans or adjacent waters. Others, such as Chevron, are seeking government approval to study the feasibility of such projects. All are in a race to harness what some scientists contend is among the nation’s largest unexploited sources of renewable energy.
“Chevron is monitoring ocean energy technology and considering how it might be integrated into our operations,” says Kim Copelin, a spokeswoman for the San Ramon, Calif., company, which is seeking a permit from the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission to start researching a possible tidal-power project in Alaska’s Cook Inlet.
These projects represent a rebirth of interest in the ocean and other waters as a source of energy, which intensified during the 1970s oil crises but fizzled in the 1980s when the price of oil dropped. Now, with concerns growing about global climate change, foreign oil dependency and rising commodity prices, companies and governments are taking another look.
Ocean-energy technology is in its infancy, and big hurdles to its widespread use remain. Among them: figuring out how to economically produce power on a large scale without harming marine life, and navigating a permitting process that companies say is lengthy and cumbersome but that some government agencies say is necessary to protect the environment.
Despite the hurdles, supporters believe there is an abundance of energy sitting off the U.S. coast just waiting to be tapped. While the amount of energy currently being produced by ocean-energy projects is minuscule, the Electric Power Research Institute — the research arm of U.S. utility companies — estimates that oceans eventually could supply about 10% of the electricity consumed in the U.S.
“Oceans are an enormous resource that should be seriously considered as part of the U.S. renewable energy portfolio,” says Sean O’Neill, president of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition, a national trade organization. Oceans “have waves, tides, currents, even offshore winds that don’t need to compete for precious land resources to generate plenty of electricity.”
Predictability of Tides
Companies are using a variety of devices to create electricity from moving water.
Ocean Power, for example, uses a network of buoys. The up-and-down movement of the ocean’s waves is converted into hydraulic pressure by pistons and cylinders located inside the buoys. That pressure spins a turbine, which turns a generator. The resulting electricity is sent ashore via an underwater cable. The company has a contract with the U.S. Navy to install and test its devices off the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. It also is working with a utility company in California and Oregon to build four wave-power stations, pending federal approvals.
Verdant Power, meanwhile, produces power for a supermarket and parking lot using six underwater turbines in New York’s East River. The movement of water from the river’s tides turns blades on the turbines, creating a rotary motion that runs a generator. The company says it has a list of customers waiting for it to get the necessary approval to start generating electricity on a larger scale.
The prime territory in the U.S. to harvest energy from wave power is in the Pacific Ocean, off the coasts of Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, Washington and northern and central California. The optimum spot for tapping into ocean currents, which are steady flows of water going in a prevailing direction, is off the shores of south Florida, while parts of the Alaska coastline, including the upper Cook Inlet around Anchorage, have some of the strongest tides in the world. The edges of Maine, New York, San Francisco and Washington state’s Puget Sound also look to be ideal for tidal energy, researchers say.
Tidal energy is drawing special interest because, though intermittent, it is more predictable than wind, solar or wave energy. While those energy sources rely on the weather, tides depend on the position of the sun, Earth and moon and gravitational forces that can be accurately predicted years in advance, says Roger Bedard, ocean energy leader at the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute.
New York, Maine, Alaska and other coastal states are investing in ocean energy projects, as is the U.S. Department of Energy, which spent $7.5 million in fiscal 2008 and could spend as much as $35 million in fiscal 2009 to help advance the viability and cost competitiveness of ocean water driven power systems.
“We need everything we can get to try to address energy supply issues,” says Steven Chalk, deputy assistant secretary for renewable energy at the Department of Energy. “If we have a true supply diversification, we will be less vulnerable to, say, rising oil prices.”
But proponents of ocean energy say private investment is being deterred by what they call an overly lengthy and complicated permitting process. Companies sometimes need more than 20 local, state and federal regulatory permits to start ocean energy research, says Mr. O’Neill of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition. As an example, Verdant Energy says it has spent more than $2 million on environmental research and waited more than five years to get to the final stages of obtaining the permits it needs to install more underwater turbines and produce electricity on a larger scale.
“In a perfect world, the U.S. will have a fast way to deal with new emerging technologies that allow companies to get into the water and start testing how efficient the equipment is and to measure the environmental impacts,” says Mr. O’Neill. “But that is just a dream.”
The projects facing the biggest logjams are those proposed for federal waters on the outer continental shelf, which generally begins three miles beyond the U.S. shoreline. Companies interested in generating energy from that part of the ocean need approval from both the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — the U.S. agency that regulates interstate natural gas and electricity transactions — and the U.S. Minerals Management Service, a branch of the Interior Department that oversees offshore energy development.
An effort to end what many companies say is a jurisdictional overlap was unsuccessful, and last month, the Minerals Management Service unveiled a set of proposed permitting rules, including environmental regulations, that it expects to have in place by later this year.
Mark Robinson, director of the office of energy projects at FERC, says his agency believes the Minerals Management Service’s proposed process is too long and costly and “will work to the disadvantage of an industry” that is trying to get on its feet.
The Minerals Management Service says that it is still evaluating comments on its proposed rules but that it has two main responsibilities when it comes to offshore energy production: securing the nation’s energy resources and protecting the environment. “We take both very seriously,” says David Smith, the agency’s deputy chief of public affairs. “We work to try to find that balance.”
In the meantime, the Minerals Management Service is granting interim leases that allow companies to test the energy potential in various spots in the ocean. More than 10 companies have obtained interim leases to begin work along the coasts of Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia, Florida and California. Still, there are no guarantees that those businesses will be able to obtain approval to work the patches of ocean they are researching.
Moving Too Fast?
Ocean-energy projects are also making surfers and fishermen nervous. Those groups say they want to be consulted on any proposed projects because the impact on ocean recreation, ecology, public safety and fishing remains mostly unknown.
“What we want is that any company who wants to put a project in waters used by commercial fishermen contact the local fishermen group and work with them so they don’t harm the fishing industry,” says Linda Buell of the Fisherman’s Advisory Committee of Tillamook, a large coastal county in Oregon. “Nothing right now is written into the rules.”
Marine scientists, meanwhile, want more research done on the unintended consequences that large ocean-energy structures could have on marine organisms. These structures could possibly conflict with migratory pathways of great whales, says George Boehlert, director of the Hatfield Marine Science Center at Oregon State University. “But this is largely unknown,” he says.