“This project, begun in 2003, is now in the world vanguard,” said Rui Barros, Enersis director of new projects. “Of all the varieties of renewable energy, perhaps harnessing the waves is the only one where Portugal might have a real future,” he said. With its geographical position and extensive coastline giving access to the larger and more powerful Atlantic waves, official estimates from Portugal’s State Secretariat for Industry and Innovation have predicted wave power could account for up to 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product by 2050. Renewable energy experts have determined wave farms in Portugal could yield as much as three times as much energy as that produced by a wind turbine park for the same investment cost.
A report published by the Portuguese Wave Energy Center has confirmed the long-term economic benefits of wave energy for the country and calls on the government to put in place a strategy to attract foreign investment into Portuguese wave power ventures. “The utilization of wave energy may have a significant socio-economic impact on Portugal, namely regarding renewables, creation of job opportunities, opportunity of exportation of equipment and services, innovation and development of technology, as well as companies dedicated to the exploitation of other oceanic resources,” the report says.
Relatively new in development, modern research into wave power had its beginnings in response to the 1973 oil crisis. Professor Stephen Salter of the University of Edinburgh pioneered research into wave energy with his prototype machine “Salter’s Duck.” Though the duck remains a laboratory prototype, the machine remains the standard for wave energy. The experimental device converted around 90 percent of the wave power by bobbing up and down on the surface of the water – like a duck. Despite its early promise though, setbacks and a general lack of government support saw the project shelved.
However, with the Portuguese system set to be the world’s first commercial wave energy venture, the exploitation of wave power has found itself back on the renewable energy agenda.
Following the Enersis announcement, other countries naturally suited to the development of wave power have expressed their interest in introducing the technology. Following his recent visit to Aguadoura, Scottish Executive Enterprise Minister Nicol Stephen announced that a portion of the 8 million pounds already set aside for renewable marine energy in Scotland would now be directed towards installing the Pelamis wave devices at the European Marine Energy Center in Orkney.
“I am committed to supporting Scotland’s huge wave and tidal energy resource. Scotland has a real opportunity to be a world leader in this field,” said the minister shortly after his visit to view the wave energy project in northern Portugal. “The opportunity now exists to create a multi-million pound industry based in Scotland, employing thousands of highly skilled people,” he said.
However, environmental group Friends of the Earth, while supporting the minister’s announcement, sounded a warning that any delays in introducing the wave power technology could lead to an exodus of Scottish expertise.
“Wave and tidal power could supply a fifth of U.K. energy needs and Scotland is ideally placed to generate significant amounts of this pollution-free energy,” said Friends of the Earth chief executive Duncan McLaren. “However, there is a danger that unless we see full-scale devices in our waters soon that the world-leading expertise Scotland has built up will rapidly depart these shores,” he said.
As part of the government supported alternative energy plan, another 28 wave power devices will be installed in Portugal within a year, reaching a target of 22.5 megawatts of electricity produced using wave energy. The project is supported by state run power company Energias de Portugal.
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.