When you flip the switch, where does your power come from?
Two years ago, there was a “gold rush” on the ocean to stake claims for wave energy sites. Now the spray is settling. As it clears, fewer heads remain above water.
Energy developers have given up on about a third of the wave projects they proposed along the West Coast.
Some tidal power proposals are ebbing away as well.
The slow arrival of this new source of renewable energy is just fine with some coastal residents who still harbor doubts about the technology. Here's more on the story from correspondent Tom Banse.
Remember back to high school English class. I had to read — and maybe you did too — Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Recall the classic opening line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Ocean energy developer Burt Hamner of Seattle can relate.
Burt Hamner: “Probably this is the best year ever to be in the renewable energy business because so much focus is going into this area.”
At the same time, most financial institutions have lost their appetite for risky or unproven ventures.
Burt Hamner: “In the credit crunch, almost all the financing for anything innovative and venture-based has just stopped.”
That would include the wave energy business. Wave energy generators are still works in progress. The basic idea is to harness the up-and-down motion of the waves to drive a piston in a large buoy or spin a turbine.
Tom Banse: “From my current vantage point outside Reedsport, Oregon it seems clean, green, and promising. Powerful waves launch geysers of spray over the jetty up ahead. But issues with financing or feasibility have washed away a half dozen marine energy projects. The casualties stretch from the northwest tip of Washington State, to the mouth of the Columbia River, past here, on down to Eureka, California.”
Reedsport looks to be the location for the first commercial wave energy park on the West Coast.
Up in Portland, Jon Norling of Columbia Energy Partners says a lot is riding on the installation of the test buoy next year.
Jon Norling: “Everybody is waiting to see what happens with the Reedsport project, I think, and seeing what the environmental studies and environmental impact statements reveal of the actual impacts.”
There’s private money behind the Reedsport project, but it relies heavily on government grants and budget earmarks to stay on track.
Jon Norling: “A lot of information will come out of the Reedsport project. Then that will help to guide other developers to see whether they pick back up and pursue wave energy on the coast.”
Norling is one of those “other developers.” His company is looking at sites off of Tillamook County.
There, in the little marina at Garibaldi, fishermen prep their boats for the upcoming season.
Linda Buell and her husband own Garibaldi Charters. She acknowledges the need to explore renewable energy in general. But Buell remains deeply troubled that ocean energy installations could close off fishing and crabbing grounds.
Linda Buell: “They’re taking fishing opportunities away from the fisherman. You can only take so much away before we don’t have fishermen and then you don’t have fresh fish to eat anymore.”
Fishermen aren’t the only ones happy to see wave energy scale back. Surfer Pete Stauffer works for the Surfrider Foundation in Portland.
The conservation group is concerned ocean energy devices may alter the height of the waves that break on the shore. Stauffer says he’s glad developers are starting with small pilot projects.
Pete Stauffer: “At this point, it is probably premature to try to put a full scale commercial project in the ocean. For one, the risk is too great in terms of a new kind of technology. There are a lot of unanswered questions.”
Backers of ocean power predict that five percent of our electricity could eventually come from wave energy parks. Five percent “seems high” to a skeptical Pete Stauffer. In the next 10 to 15 years, he foresees just a handful of utility-scale wave energy projects on the West Coast.
Perhaps by then the story of wave energy no longer hearkens to A Tale of Two Cities, but rather suits the title of another Dickens classic, Great Expectations.
We're in the middle of an OPB series on energy, called The Switch. You can find more information and our stories aired so far at opbnews.org/theswitch .