PG&E’s 5MW Wave Energy Project Sinks

wave energy san francisco

A project that could’ve helped to advance wave energy development is no more. At least for now. The Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has suspended a 5-megawatt project off Northern California coast primarily because it’d cost too much.

The pilot project would’ve provided a valuable opportunity to test promising technologies to convert the wave’s motion into electricity about three miles off the coast of Humboldt County. PG&E began investigating the feasibility of the project back in 2007 and had filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a 5-year license earlier this year.

The utility had planned to select three or four developers of wave energy converter equipment by the end of this year and secure the federal permit by June 2011 (here is a list of wave energy technologies that PG&E considered). The company quietly announced the suspension of the project last Friday by issuing a press release only to Humboldt-area media.

Though promising, wave energy development is still in the early stages. FERC has only issued one license to build and operate a wave project, according to its website. The license holder, Finavera Renewables, surrendered that license last year, citing difficulties in raising enough money to do the 1-megawatt project off the coast of Washington state. FERC has issued 11 permits for studying the feasibility of building wave power farms in the country, all of them located in the Pacific Ocean.

At the end, though, PG&E opted to discontinue with the project because of the costs of financing a project that would’ve involved unproven technologies and been limited in its ability to expand, said company spokesman Brian Swanson. In PG&E’s permit application, it had estimated that the project would require $50 million just to cover the expenses of installing the infrastructure for the power transmission, monitoring and other equipment. The figure didn’t include the cost of the wave energy converters. The utility also pegged the operating and maintenance costs at about $5 million annually, though the number didn’t include any environmental protection measures.

PG&E could have been a pioneering wave energy developer if it had continued and completed the project. But blazing the trail would’ve required some extra costs that the private, investor-owned utility wasn’t willing to take on.

“There is no precedent and no other project to compare to, and there is a need for monitoring and adoptive management plans to evaluate and respond to the potential environmental impact. That management plan had a high cost associated with,” Swanson said.

Plus, Swanson said the Humboldt project was set for a location that wouldn’t have allowed it to expand its generation capacity, something that could’ve made the operating of the project cheaper in the long run.

Although PG&E ditched the Humboldt project, it isn’t ready to give up wave energy yet. The company is continuing with its proposed plan to do a pilot project off the coast of Santa Barbara County in central California. The company is still studying the feasibility of building a 10-megawatt project, which would float in an area that is large enough to accommodate a 100-megawatt farm, Swanson said. The Humboldt region remains a potential site for future projects, he said.

The utility hasn’t only been interested in building its own wave energy projects. It once proposed to buy electricity from what could have been the country’s first wave energy power plant. Finavera was set to develop the 2-megawatt project off Northern California coast. But the California Public Utilities said no to the power purchase agreement in 2008 because the technology was unproven and costly.

PG&E also abandoned a plan to build another pilot project off the cost of Mendocino County in Northern California in 2009.

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Photo courtesy of  Wonderlane

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