Concerns emerge about environmental
effects of wave-energy technology
Nov 17, 2008 - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
- Michelle Ma Seattle Times
What started out as a mad dash to extract energy
from the ocean's waves and tides has slowed to a marathoner's
pace -- complete with a few water breaks and sprained
ankles along the way.
In the past three years, more than 100 preliminary
permits have been issued nationally for wave- and
tidal-energy projects, and nearly 100 more are pending
approval. But only one has won a license to operate
-- a small wave-energy development off Washington's
That project is still awaiting state and federal
permits, and its British Columbia-based developer,
Finavera Renewables, doesn't know when the first devices
will go in the water. It doesn't help that a wave-power
buoy the company was testing off the Oregon coast
unexpectedly sank last year.
Tapping the power of waves and tidal currents to
generate electricity is promoted as one of many promising
alternatives to the fossil fuels that contribute to
But no one knows exactly how the technologies will
behave in the water, whether animals will get hurt,
or if costs will pencil out. The permitting process
is expensive and cumbersome, and no set method exists
for getting projects up and running.
"The industry is really young, and everything is
hodgepodged right now," said Jim Thomson, an oceanographer
at the University of Washington's Applied Physics
Lab who is involved in tidal research.
A new report that collected findings from dozens
of scientists raises concerns about the impact wave-energy
developments could have on the ocean and its critters.
Wave-energy buoys could alter the food chain or disrupt
migrations, the report says.
Still, developers, regulators and researchers are
moving forward. A 2.25-megawatt project off the coast
of Portugal went on line this fall, becoming the world's
first commercial wave-energy development in operation.
It can supply 1,500 households with electricity.
The first commercial wave-energy park in the U.S.
could go in off Reedsport, Ore., within the next two
Tidal energy has yet to go commercial, but devices
have been tested in Ireland and Canada. Turbines have
been placed in New York's East River, and a demonstration
project is planned for the Bay of Fundy off Northeastern
In the Northwest, the Snohomish County Public Utility
District (PUD) has narrowed its search for tidal-power
sites in Puget Sound, although the PUD doesn't expect
to have a test project in the water for another two
Race to develop
Dozens of developers have staked claim to plots in
the ocean and in waterways that could provide wave
and tidal energy. But despite the jostle for space,
getting projects off dry land has proved difficult.
Wave-power generators use the up-and-down motion
of the ocean's swells to produce electricity. Tidal
generators act like underwater windmills, spinning
as the tides move in and out.
To get small projects in the water quicker federal
regulators recently created a five-year pilot license
for tidal and wave developments. That's meant to help
developers gather data they need to launch future
projects, said Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
spokeswoman Celeste Miller.
Yet even with a more streamlined process, no one
has applied for the pilot license, Miller said. Finavera
received its license for the 1-megawatt Makah Bay
wave project before this option became available.
Given the unknowns in a young industry, it's not
surprising projects are taking longer than some developers
would like, said Myke Clark, senior vice president
of business development for Finavera.
His company encountered another hurdle when Pacific
Gas and Electric's agreement to buy power from a planned
Finavera wave-energy project off California was rejected
last month by the state's Public Utilities Commission.
Regulators said the rates were too high and the buoy
technology not yet ready.
Clark said the decision wouldn't affect Finavera's
Makah Bay project.
Research under way
Researchers from the University of Washington and
Oregon State University hope that a new national marine
renewable-energy research center in the Northwest
will help answer questions about tidal and wave energy.
A federal grant provides $1.25 million annually for
up to five years. The UW will continue research on
tidal energy in Puget Sound, while OSU will focus
on wave energy.
"The feeling is that a lot of questions being asked
now are only questions that can be answered with a
responsible pilot [project]," said Brian Polagye,
who is pursuing his doctorate in mechanical engineering
at the UW.
Locally, researchers want to see where marine life
in Puget Sound congregates and to create a standard
way to evaluate sites around the country to determine
which would be good candidates for tidal-energy projects.
Admiralty Inlet, between Whidbey Island and Port
Townsend, is the likely spot for the Snohomish County
PUD's small test project set to launch at least two
years from now, said Craig Collar, the PUD's senior
manager of energy-resource development.
The inlet's tides are strong, and the area is large
enough to accommodate a tidal project without interfering
with other activities such as diving and ferry traffic.
Finavera wants to install four wave-energy buoys
in Makah Bay in the Olympic Coast National Marine
Sanctuary to test its technology. Developers also
plan to monitor the project for effects on wildlife
and shoreline habitat, keeping an eye on federally
listed species such as the marbled murrelet, a small
bird that dives for food.
Finavera doesn't intend to continue the project after
its five-year license expires. Still, if the company
can negotiate a purchasing agreement with the Clallam
County Public Utility District, homes in the area
could use the wave-generated power while the project
is in the water, Clark said.
The Makah Nation wants to see what effect the project
might have on the environment before deciding whether
wave energy is a viable long-term option, said Ryland
Bowechop, tourism and economic-development planner
for the tribe.
The buoys would sit just offshore from the tribal
headquarters in Neah Bay.
"We are always concerned because our livelihood
is the ocean," Bowechop said.
The environmental effects of wave and tidal energy
are largely unknown and require more studies, dozens
of scientists concluded after meeting a year ago at
OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore.
The group was concerned that electromagnetic cables
on the ocean floor could affect sea life, and that
buoys could interfere with whale and fish migration.
Large buoys might actually attract more fish, but
the marine ecosystem could be altered if more predators
move in. Buoys also could disrupt natural currents
and change how sediment is moved. Shorelines might
be affected as energy is taken from the waves.
Even if environmental concerns are checked, costs
to extract the power remain high. Wave energy costs
at least 20 cents per kilowatt hour to generate, compared
with 4 cents per kilowatt hour for wind power, said
Annette von Jouanne, leader of OSU's wave-energy program.
Wind energy used to be much more expensive 20 years
In comparison, coal-generated power costs about 5
cents per kilowatt hour, and power from dams can be
as low as 3 cents, said Roger Bedard, ocean-energy
leader with the nonprofit Electric Power Research
Tidal-energy costs are harder to determine because
there aren't any projects trying to sell electricity,
Fishermen have their own worries. They fear that
wave and tidal projects could further reduce access
to fishing grounds, said Dale Beasley, a commercial
fisherman in Ilwaco, Pacific County, and president
of the Columbia River Crab Fisherman's Association.
"There's so many things coming at the ocean right
now," he said.
Beasley says the industry wants a say in how wave-
and tidal-energy projects are developed.
"Coastal communities are going to have to figure
out a way to deal with this, and if they don't, the
character of the coast will change dramatically,"
Michelle Ma: 206-464-2303 or firstname.lastname@example.org