Is wave power crashing?

PG&E jettisons all of its wave power plans for the Californian coast. Will this emerging industry sink or ride out the tide?

Pacific Gas & Electric has sunk its plans to develop wave power off the Californian coast. In recent years, the electric utility has explored installing wave projects in three areas. All have gone belly up.

Last November, PG&E suspended its 5-megawatt WaveConnect project in Humboldt County, citing high equipment and transmission costs as the reason. In 2008, the California Public Utilities Commission nixed a power purchase agreement between PG&E and Finerva to build a 2-megawatt wave farm a couple miles off Eureka's coastline. The Commission cited a buoy sinking after it malfunctioned during a 6-week trial phase in its refusal. Less than a year later, PG&E sank the dream of a 40-megawatt wave farm in Mendocino County's Noyo Harbor. The reported problem there was the harbor being too small and treacherous to host and provide access to the devices for maintenance.

So for the time being, PG&E is jettisoning wave energy from its renewable portfolio. KQED News quotes Denny Boyles, a PG&E spokesperson:

There's definitely still a future for wave energy. Our hope is that one day it will become a more viable source. There is wave energy conversion technology that's out there that's working. It's just not at a point where it's widespread enough for us.

The nascent industry does face economic and technical challenges, with several variations of wave and tidal devices seemingly anchored in the testing phase . In U.S. waters, only one device, a buoy in Hawaii , is connected to a grid so far.

Even so, not all marine power projects are on the rocks.

Ocean Power Technologies (OPT), a New Jersey-based company, plans to haul out the first of ten wave power buoys off Reedsport, Oregon by year's end. This would be the first commercial wave power station this side of the Atlantic. OPT is currently testing its Powerbuoy 150 in Scotland, where marine power has caught the most momentum.

On Wednesday, Edinburgh-based Aquamarine Power announced it had secured seabed leases for two projects off Scotland's Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. With 40 1-megawatt Oyster devices (right), the pair of farms could power around 38,000 homes. But there's a snag. The BBC reports there are just 13,195 properties on the isles. Without transmission infrastructure, the farms wouldn't be able to send the surplus power to the mainland. Plans for such transmission stalled after a subsidiary of Scottish and Southern Energy said the costs should be covered by the projects' developers.

Martin McAdam, CEO of Aquamarine Power, told the BBC:

If Scotland is to capitalise on it's global lead in marine energy there is an urgent need to address the lack of interconnectors not just to the Western Isles but to Orkney and Shetland also.

The high transmission charges levied by Ofgem on remote projects are a fundamental barrier which make it uneconomic for renewable energy projects to underwrite the high capital costs of transmission upgrades.

Still, the company forges ahead. They plan to connect their latest Oyster model to Orkney's grid this summer.

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Image: Flickr/Heliosphere and Aquamarine Power

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