January 9, 2014
The institute has been awarded up to $750,000 by the Department of Energy to explore the feasibility of tethering a rig miles off the California coast for research into generating electricity from the rise and fall of ocean waves. Matching funds would increase the study’s purse to about $1 million.
Institute President Sam Blakeslee said the waters off California — and Humboldt and Santa Barbara counties in particular — have great power-generating potential.
The former California state senator and one-time Exxon geophysicist said he envisions a test site anchored several miles offshore, where a wide variety of wave-energy devices can encounter real-world conditions.
“What’s needed is a deep water, high seas, real-world environment so that these researchers and developers can more rapidly determine which models can work and survive and thrive where wave height changes, where wave energy density changes, where cross currents are variable,” he said.
The Energy Department envisions cooperative funding on the order of $25 million to $50 million for a wave energy test facility, pending appropriations by Congress — meaning the facility is not guaranteed. A wave-energy center would complement existing R&D facilities for green energy like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden Colorado.
Contenders to develop the facility are likely to include the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, affiliated with Oregon State University and the University of Washington, as well as East Coast proposals.
Founded last year, the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Research has assembled an advisory board with prominent utility regulators, past and present, including California Public Utilities Commissioner Mike Florio.
As a state, California stands out not only for its ocean swells but also as an aggressive backer of renewable energy technology, recently requiring the addition of major energy storage devices to the grid that can help integrate more variable solar and wind energy.
Official estimates by the California Energy Commission foresee as much as 7.5 gigawatts of generating capacity some day from waves — more than three times the output of the recently retired San Onofre nuclear plant. But efforts to harness the power of waves still lag behind more mature and commercialized technologies like wind and solar.
Blakeslee sees the California’s forced retirement and of coastal power plants that circulate ocean water for cooling — an effort to protect marine life — as an opportunity for wave energy. Those ocean-cooling plants have left a robust network of transmission lines along the coast.
Wave energy has recently been suggested as a possible replacement for the recently retired San Onofre nuclear plant in northern San Diego County. But the technology and its commercialization lag far behind renewables like wind and solar.