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<strong>Potential wattage:</strong>  A wave breaks at Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Point Arguello. Because this area often receives heavy swells, PG&E thinks it would be a suitable wave energy production site.

Senior Airman Bryan Boyette

Potential wattage: A wave breaks at Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Point Arguello. Because this area often receives heavy swells, PG&E thinks it would be a suitable wave energy production site.


Wave of the Future

PG&E Teams with Vandenberg on Renewable Energy Project


A potential wave-energy project at Vandenberg Air Force Base may be the first of its type in the region, and its announcement was enough to fill Santa Barbara Public Library’s Faulkner Gallery during a meeting held last week.

The Pacific Gas & Electric Company already has a preliminary permit for a pilot project in Humboldt County — apparently modeled after a few successful European wave-energy projects — but has been looking for other suitable places along California’s coastline. A site near Mendocino was studied, but was deemed to be too far away from an industrial harbor. Not so at Vandenberg, said PG&E engineers, where plentiful waves, and a dock intended to retrieve jettisoned space shuttle rocket boosters, make for a desirable location.

The Department of Defense wants 25 percent of its energy portfolio to be renewable by 2025. The Navy has already undertaken a sizeable biodiesel production project at Port Hueneme.

Although environmental groups are generally supportive of the project — dubbed Central Coast WaveConnect — there are still a number of hoops to jump through for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission before PG&E can receive the preliminary permit for a pilot project at Vandenberg. A preliminary permit would allow the company to study the area and gives it first rights to apply for a pilot project or a commercial project within three years time.

Brad King, Vandenberg’s Energy Manager, was quick to point out that the depths needed for a practical wave-energy project necessitate placing the hydrokinetic energy generation devices outside Vandenberg’s jurisdiction. “We don’t own the ocean,” he said, “so we can’t give it away, but we have a place [PG&E] can connect to.”

Currently, PG&E is looking at a 10-year, 10-megawatt preliminary permit, but engineers at last week’s meeting said that a fully functioning project could someday pump out as much as 100 megawatts. “A hundred megawatts is a small part of the demand for Santa Barbara County, but it will decrease the amount of power imported from other parts of the state,” said Bill Toman, the PG&E project manager for Central Coast WaveConnect. Unlike Southern Santa Barbara County, which is serviced by Southern California Edison, Vandenberg and the northern part of the county are connected to PG&E’s grid.

PG&E is actively studying four technologies for the pilot project — one looks like a giant, floating zigzag, another like a cluster of buoys, another like a series of barges, and one that can’t be seen from the water’s surface at all. The zigzag uses the movement in the joints between its sections to create energy; the buoys move up and down on anchored poles; water pouring in and out of the barge, as swells come and go, turns a turbine inside the barge; and the subsurface device consists of a large flap that sways back and forth as ocean waves travel past. King said the various devices will be connected in a large formation several miles offshore, with a hub transmitting electric power back to transforming stations on one or more of Vandenberg’s old space-launch pads.

“Every time an engineer goes on holiday at the seashore, there’s another idea about wave energy on the internet,” commented Rick Williams, chief engineer for SAIC, a consultant on the project. “There are thousands of good ideas out there, and hundreds of patents have been filed.” Indeed, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit with the stated goal of protecting human health and the environment, has supported harnessing the energy of ocean and river water movement without the use of dams — which have led to numerous environmental impacts over the years — but only as long as diverse types of energy production are used.

Because water is 800 times more dense than air, we can extract a similar amount of energy as from [wind], but in a much smaller space,” said Toman, adding that as the technology progresses, it will become, as wind energy has become, more efficient and cheaper to produce parts for.

Not wishing to repeat the costly EIR and feasibility study processes, PG&E and Vandenberg appear to be taking cautions to involve every conceivable stakeholder in the project as it is laid out, an effort King said is designed to address all possible concerns so that the costly environmental impact report and feasibility study processes won’t have to be repeated. “A good project always has the community better off after the project is finished than before the project began,” said Toman. Most in attendance at last week’s meeting seemed to have some scientific or energy background, and they seemed were sympathetic to the project. Several concerns were raised, though, particularly about the project’s potential impacts on biological life, impacts upon shipping and fishing in the area, and the amount of physical area the project will take up on the sea’s surface.

“Wave energy is one of the newest renewable energy technologies, so we want to be cautious moving forward,” said Kristi Birney-Reiman, the Environmental Defense Center’s Marine Conservation Analyst. “We support renewable energy in general, but we want to make sure [this project] is properly sited and that its impacts are minimized and mitigated as much as possible.”

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