Can Ocean Power Keep Its Head Above Water?

Most of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, so it seems like it would be a great idea to harness all that wave and tidal power and turn it into electricity. But so far, that’s pretty much what it is — an idea. Earlier this week, Pelamis Wave Power told the International Herald Tribune that it’s pulled its three wave power generators out of the water off the coast of Portugal due to technical and financial difficulties.


The move at Pelamis’ Agucadoura wave farm project reduces the already small number of wave and tidal power projects actually in the ocean. According to data from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office, there are only 21 projects around the world that have devices operating in the ocean, grid-connected or not.

But the data has yet to reflect the Pelamis generators being put in drydock, so that number should go down to 20. And Verdant Power is still on the list, too, but that company had its tidal turbines mangled by the East River in New York back in 2007. There’s no word on whether its turbines are back in the water, so the figure could actually be 19. And who knows how long until that number goes down again?

To be fair, ocean power is experiencing the same growing pains that any new technology has to struggle with — we didn’t get to over 47 gigawatts of worldwide wind generating capacity overnight. But the struggles of the ocean power industry are being made all the more harrowing by the global credit crunch.

And regulatory hurdles aren’t helping. Vancouver, British Columbia’s Finavera Renewables decided to get out of the wave power game when its plans with PG&E (s pcg) for a 2-megawatt project in California were dashed by the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

But that hasn’t stopped San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom from pushing ahead with some bold plans for up to 100 MW of wave power in the Bay Area just last month . And earlier this year, Lockheed Martin (s LMT) teamed up with Ocean Power Technologies (s OPTT) to develop a utility-scale wave power project off the West Coast.

Well, those groups and others may need the patience of Job to get over the regulatory and economic hurdles involved in getting a device into the water. If they do manage to hold out, then maybe we’ll see that ocean power database number actually go up.

Photo of Portugal wave farm (while it was still in the water) courtesy of Pelamis