PG&E agrees to buy power from Canadian
firm's proposed 'wave park'
Dec 18, 2007 - David R. Baker - San Franchisco
The dream of generating electricity from the ocean's
waves will take a major step forward today when Pacific
Gas and Electric Co. announces its support for plans
to build the nation's first commercial wave power
plant off the coast of Northern California, the latest
step in the state's efforts to combat global warming.
The plant will consist of eight buoys bobbing in
the water 2 1/2 miles offshore, each buoy generating
electricity as it rises and falls with the waves.
If all goes as planned, the "wave park" will begin
operating in 2012.
The power it generates won't be much - enough to
light 1,500 homes at most. But it represents another
potential front in the fight against climate change.
California has ordered utilities such as PG&E to buy
more power from renewable sources that don't spew
greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and heat the
planet. The utilities are turning to the sun, the
wind and now the ocean as a result.
San Francisco's PG&E won't build or own the proposed
wave park, near Eureka, which will be designed and
built by Canadian company Finavera. Instead, PG&E
has agreed to buy the plant's power.
That promise will help Finavera get financing for
the project by showing potential investors that it
already has a customer. It's an unusual step for a
technology that, until now, has existed more in the
lab than in the water.
"The big leap in wave power is going to happen when
banks are comfortable enough with the technology to
lend money," said Jason Bak, Finavera's chief executive
officer. "It's really getting the first few megawatts
in the water that will make the difference."
Wave power has been tested again and again. But unlike
the solar panels and wind farms multiplying across
the country, it has remained a promising technology,
not a moneymaker.
That could change.
If all goes as planned, Finavera's small wave-power
station off the Humboldt County coast will be the
first in America to sell its power, not just run more
tests. But Finavera could face competition for that
title. Other wave projects big enough to sell their
electricity have been proposed for the West Coast
and could beat the company to the punch. But Finavera's
project is the first to win support from an electrical
Neither Finavera nor PG&E will say how much the Eureka
wave park will cost.
There's no guarantee that the project will work.
Finavera's prototype buoy sank off the Oregon coast
earlier this year, for reasons the company hasn't
completely nailed down.
"We only pay if they deliver," said Hal LaFlash,
PG&E's policy director for emerging, clean technology.
Wave power's appeal is easy to understand. So are
Ocean waves pack immense energy in a small area.
Tapping even a fraction of it could provide large
amounts of electricity without pumping greenhouse
gases into the air. And because the energy is so concentrated,
the machines needed to tap it, in theory, don't have
be as big as a wind farm or a large-scale solar plant.
As a result, wave power could one day be cheaper
than those other energy technologies.
"Wind and solar are very diffuse sources - you have
to cover a lot of area to collect energy," said Roger
Bedard, leader of ocean energy studies at the Electric
Power Research Institute. "Waves carry a lot of energy
in a small space. Smaller machines cost less than
But efforts to create a reliable, economic way to
harvest that energy have moved slowly, when they've
moved at all. Any device stuck in the ocean for years
on end must be able to sustain a beating with minimal
"It's kind of like Ben Franklin and lightning,"
said David Hamilton, director of the Sierra Club's
global warming program. "You look at the ocean, and
you see all this energy. But the challenge is figuring
out how to capture it. Here are these very large forces,
and in the past, the ocean has eaten alive the machines
we've put up against it."
Finavera's last "AquaBuoy" prototype suffered a similar
fate. It started taking on water when Finavera's researchers
went to retrieve it from a test deployment near Newport,
Ore. The device slowly dropped beneath the waves over
the next 30 hours. It remains on the ocean floor,
waiting to be retrieved.
Bak said the company still isn't sure why the AquaBuoy
sank. But finding unexpected problems is the reason
for building prototypes, he said.
"If you compare it to software, this was our beta
test, and you learn from beta tests," he said.
Finavera's buoys look like long cylinders floating
upright in the water, with only the top few feet visible.
As they rise and fall on the ocean surface, the motion
drives a pump within the cylinder that compresses
seawater and forces it through a turbine. The turbine
generates electricity, which an underwater cable carries
Finavera plans to deploy eight of the buoys near
Eureka, generating a maximum of 2 megawatts of electricity.
Each megawatt can power about 750 homes.
If the wave park works as planned, Finavera will
expand it, making it large enough to produce a maximum
of 100 megawatts.
First, however, the company must secure all the
needed government approvals. To do so, Finavera will
need to study in detail the project's potential impact
on the undersea environment. Some activists, for example,
have questioned whether the steel tethers tying wave
buoys to the ocean floor could endanger migrating
LaFlash said those possibilities have to be explored.
A technology that seems environmentally benign might
still affect the environment in unexpected, unwelcome
ways. Some wind farms, for example, have killed scores
of birds that have flown into the windmills' large
"I don't think anybody 25 years ago, looking at
wind turbines, was thinking about the impact on raptors,"
Bak said the company will be able to secure all the
government permits it needs through the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission. But Bedard said Finavera probably
will need to deal with about 20 other government agencies,
both state and federal.
"Surfers, crabbers ... everyone will have a right
to comment through FERC," Bak said.
For more information on the AquaBuoy system, see:
E-mail David R. Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San