PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Technology for tapping ocean waves, tides and rivers for electricity is far from commercial viability and lagging well behind wind, solar and other fledgling power sectors, a panel of experts said last week during a forum here on climate change and marine ecosystems.
While the potential for marine energy is great, ocean wave and tidal energy projects are still winding their way through an early research and development phase, these experts said.
"It's basically not commercially financeable yet," said Edwin Feo, a partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, during a conference at Stanford University. "They are still a long ways from getting access to the capital and being deployed, because they are simply immature technologies."
Ocean and tidal energy are renewable sources that can be used to meet California's renewable portfolio standard of 10 percent of electricity by 2010. But the industry has been hampered by uncertainty about environmental effects, poor economics, jurisdictional tieups and scattered progress for a handful of entrepreneurs.
Finavera Renewables, based in British Columbia, recently canceled all of its wave projects, bringing to a close what was the first permit for wave power from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. And last fall, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) denied Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s application for a power purchase agreement with Finavera Renewables, citing the technology's immaturity (E&ENews PM, Oct. 27, 2008).
Roger Bedard, head of the Electric Power Research Institute's wave power research unit, said the United States is at least five and maybe 10 years away from the first commercial project in marine waters. A buoy at a Marine Corps base in Hawaii is the only wave-powered device that has been connected to the power grid so far in the United States. The first pilot tidal project, in New York's East River, took five years to get a permit from FERC.
Feo, who handles renewable energy project financing at his law firm, says more than 80 ocean, tidal and river technologies are being tested by start-ups that do not have much access to capital or guarantee of long-term access to their resource. That has translated into little interest from the investment community.
"Most of these companies are start-ups," Feo said. "From a project perspective, that doesn't work. People who put money into projects expect long-term returns."
William Douros of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expressed similar concerns and said agency officials have been trying to sort through early jurisdictional disputes and the development of some technologies that would "take up a lot of space on the sea floor."
"You would think offshore wave energy projects are a given," Douros said. "And yet, from our perspective, from within our agency, there are still a lot of questions."
'Really exciting times'
But the belief in marine energy is there in some quarters, prompting the Interior Department to clear up jurisdictional disputes with FERC for projects outside 3 miles from state waters. Under an agreement announced last week, Interior will issue leases for offshore wave and current energy development, while FREC will license the projects (E&ENews PM, April 9).
The agreement gives Interior's Minerals Management Service exclusive jurisdiction over the production, transportation or transmission of energy from offshore wind and solar projects. MMS and FERC will share responsibilities for hydrokinetic projects, such as wave, tidal and ocean current.
Maurice Hill, who works on the leasing program at MMS, said the agency is developing "a comprehensive approach" to offshore energy development. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar himself has been holding regional meetings and will visit San Francisco this week to talk shop as part of that process.
Hill said MMS and the U.S. Geological Survey will issue a report within 45 days on potential development and then go public with its leasing program.
"These next couple of months are really exciting times, especially on the OCS," he said.
Still, Hill acknowledged that the industry is in an early stage and said federal officials are approaching environmental effects especially with caution.
"We don't know how they'll work," he said. "We're testing at this stage."
'Highly energetic' West Coast waves
But if projects do lurch forward, the Electric Power Research Institute's Bedard said, the resource potential is off the charts. He believes it is possible to have 10 gigawatts of ocean wave energy online by 2025, and 3 gigawatts of river and ocean energy up in the same time frame.
The potential is greatest on the West Coast, Bedard said, where "highly energetic" waves pound the long coastline over thousands of miles. Alaska and California have the most to gain, he said, with Oregon, Washington and Hawaii not far behind.
To Feo, a key concern is the length of time MMS chooses to issue leases to developers. He said the typical MMS conditional lease time of two, three or five years won't work for ocean wave technology because entrepreneurs need longer-term commitments to build projects and show investors the industry is here to say.
"It just won't work" at two, three or five years, Feo said. "Sooner or later, you have to get beyond pilot projects."
Hill refused to answer questions about the length of the leases being considered by MMS.