wave energy

Waving Hello To The Power of California's Coast

There's the Big Picture, and then there is the REALLY BIG picture. The Big Picture is California exceeding Gov. Brown's 33 percent renewables mandate. The REALLY BIG picture is California reaching 100 percent.

We get lots of sun (my late relatives from the freezing East practically weeped when they turned on their TVs and saw the Rose Parade under sunny skies). Wind turbines dot mountain passes in Alameda, Kern and Riverside counties. Geothermal bubbles up in Lake and Imperial counties. And there is the Coast. Wave power, baby!

Dozens of solar projects proposed for Central and Southern California will likely push the state beyond the 33 percent mandate. But why stop there? As my colleague Mike Nemeth noted in this great post, why not apply a Space Race mentality to energy, especially in this state, which is already a leader in renewables? Nemeth is especially fascinated by the prospect of wave power, as he notes in this blog.

As far fetched as it seems, wave power gets a boost in a new report (here's a link) that cites the astounding opportunities presented by the rolling waves off the coast of Central California, where I grew up. Wave power alone, if fully utilized, could supply energy needs of one-third of the nation. Read more here and here.

The Electric Power Research Institute report is pretty technical. It is full of fancy graphs and mind-numbing data, but suggests that California's waves are great for creating energy. Maybe this device, which works like a bicycle pump, could be an assist.

Population growth, the effects of climate change and dwindling supply of fossil fuel and the increased cost of extracting it, will only increase the demand for energy. Wave power could go a long way toward satisfying the demand. Over in Europe, officials have announced plans for a "marine energy park" off the coast of England, but who knows if it will come to fruition.

Closer to home, the U.S. Department of Energy is testing designs off the coast of Washington, Oregon and Maine, and tidal currents in the East River of New York are the subject of this research. But this proposal in Southern California isn't likely to get under way anytime soon.

President Obama is expected to call for action on clean energy in his State of the Union speech. Wave power is ambitious, but so was the Space Race. Harnessing the power of the ocean would be expensive and a technological challenge, but is it any tougher than going to the moon?

Photo by Roger Kirby

If only ocean energy could power the world

The Seven Seas dominate the planet.

And they're full of energy. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says the oceans are the world's largest solar energy collector and energy storage system.

For instance, "on an average day, 23 million square miles of tropical seas absorb an amount of solar radiation equal in heat content to about 250 billion barrels of oil," the lab says.

Add tidal and wave power, and that's perhaps why researchers, scientists and entrepreneurs are redoubling efforts to tap the resource and plug its clean energy into the grid.

Wave & tidal power get financing

Wave and tidal power have received most of the recent ocean power buzz. The U.S. Department of Energy in May 2011 handed out $4.7 million to companies involved in wave energy development off the coast of Oregon, according to the Portland Business Journal. Oregon Wave Energy Trust contributed another $496,000 in matching money.

Extracting the aforementioned solar energy via ocean thermal energy conversion also shows potential. Ocean thermal systems use warmer water at the surface and colder water from about a half mile down to generate energy. This works so long as the temperature difference is no less than 36 degrees F.

"An OTEC system can produce a significant amount of power," NREL says, estimating the overall potential to be about 10,000 gigawatts. A gigawatt is a billion watts.

Challenge issued

Like a lot of renewable energy concepts, this one has its technological hurdles. The greatest is of course financial viability. Can it be done cost-effectively?

Some companies have taken on the challenge.

The Ocean Energy Council, based in West Palm Beach, Florida, says new designs for ocean thermal energy conversion remain mostly experimental. The council reports those that have been built have been small -- one near Japan that can generate 100 kilowatts and another off the coast of Hawaii, producing 50 kilowatts.

"A full scale OTEC would cost many millions of dollars, and it would be very difficult to build," the council says.

Ocean thermal makes gains

Ted Johnson, who worked with Lockheed Corp.'s on development of the floating ocean thermal pilot plant off the coast of Hawaii, says rising oil prices and technological advances have made the systems "increasingly attractive" to some countries.

"The technology exists to make ocean thermal energy a reality," he says in a statement.

His company, Lancaster, Pa.-based OTE Corp., is currently peddling the technology, along with accompanying water desalination and sea-water cooling.

A system was successfully created in 1929, when French engineer George Claude designed and built a 22-kilowatt on the Cuban coast. "He took the warm surface water and put it into an evaporator," reports the Ocean Energy Council. "The pressure was lowered which caused the water to vaporize. It was forced through a turbine and it produced 22 kilowatts of electricity. Cold water was piped up from lower ocean depths to cool the vaporized water so the cycle could begin again."

But storms kept breaking the pipe used to collect cold water from deep water, and the project was abandoned.

Ocean power & Dr. Pepper

I'm fascinated with the prospect of realizing energy from the sea. I lived third grade and many summers before that with my grandmother, spending nearly all of my free time on the beach, in the water or trying to get onto it in a skiff. I don't recall that it mattered how cold it was.

The power of the ocean amazed me back then. I recall holing up with my little sister during a storm at the highest point of the black shale beach under some driftwood. I wanted to see how far the waves would crash. They cascaded 50 to 60 feet and just over us. Grandma found me after a good four hours. Her expression was a mixture of profound relief and barely concealed anger. Turned out the whole town of Port Lions, Alaska was looking for us, so we got hot Dr. Pepper at the cafe.

Not every storm delivers hot Dr. Pepper. Irene ravaged thousands of miles of coastline, expelling its massive energy. If just some of that was captured, bottled and reapplied, we'd be giving power away.

The search continues

But the search for clean energy isn't simple. The ultimate solution to cheap renewable power eludes us for the most part.

Yet, ingenuity and mankind's desire to find solutions may ferret out a solution.

In many ways we're just like Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe," stuck on an uncharted island surrounded by blue seas with everything we need to survive. In Crusoe's case, it took many years for him to successfully figure out how to use all the resources he was given.

Maybe we just need a couple more years.

Art: Cover of the first edition "Robinson Crusoe."

Developers face significant headwinds as they seek offshore clean energy

Offshore gales beckon kilowatts and profit.

However, building wind turbines or wave energy devices in an environment where weather regularly whips white caps to a frenzy and drives commercial fishermen to safe harbor brings higher development costs and technological challenges.

Those are not expected to dissuade a new generation of clean energy prospectors that is projected to install between 58 and 71 gigawatts of generation capacity, representing $52.2 billion to $78.6 billion in power production, by 2017 worldwide, according to a new study by Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research. A gigawatt equals 1,000 megawatts or enough to power about 330,000 homes.

On another promising but more technologically uncertain front, Pennington, N.J.-based Ocean Power Technologies Inc. plans to install a specially designed buoy to extract energy from waves off Reedsport, Ore., reported Ocean Power Magazine (no relation). The company is awarding four contracts to Oregon companies in connection with the manufacture and deployment of its PB150 PowerBuoy.

The magazine reported that the new contracts brings the investment by the company into the local economy to more than $6 million, "creating or saving up to 100 manufacturing and marine services jobs at the four companies and their suppliers."

In offshore wind, most of the development will take place in Europe with the United States accounting for between 2.9 and 6.2 gigawatts, said study authors Peter Asmus, Pike senior analyst, and Brittany Gibson, Pike research associate.

"The United Kingdom is projected to lead the world with $12 billion by 2017," they wrote. Asia won't be far behind.

The UK's leadership is no surprise as the British have been harvesting wind energy offshore for the past decade and are not expected to slow down. The country is also encouraging development of wave energy off the shores of Scotland.

But expect China, a big mover in clean energy from development of solar installations to the manufacturing dominance of solar panels, to make a major push.

The United States isn't taking any of this sitting down. The U.S. government has unleashed a relative torrent of measures to accelerate President Obama's clean energy objectives. The president this year announced the goal of generating 80 percent of the nation's electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said offshore wind received the coordinated might of the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Department of Energy to "support offshore wind energy deployment and several high priority wind energy areas in the mid-Atlantic that will spur rapid, responsible development of this abundant renewable resource."

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the approval for construction of the Cape Wind Energy Project off Nantucket in April, calling it the nation's first offshore operation. Construction could begin later this year.

Salazar also said the government is working to synchronize research and development initiatives with "more efficient, forward-thinking planning" for offshore wind, committing up to $50.5 million in project funding.

Wind turbines are getting bigger and more efficient. Innovations in design are expected. Still, transmission lines remain a major hurdle and cost, especially offshore.

But Google is a believer. Its Atlantic Wind Connection transmission line will stretch 350 miles off the coast from New Jersey to Virginia. Officials say the line will link  6,000 megawatts of offshore wind turbines, or thequivalent of 60 percent of wind energy brought on line in 2009 and "enough to serve approximately 1.9 million households."