One need look no further than to our expansive, next-door neighbor to the west and south-the Pacific Ocean-to find what some researchers are calling the next potential source of electrical energy for Santa Barbara County. The Community Environmental Council (CEC)-which has been working for a few years to wean the county off fossil fuels-is now examining wave energy as a possible way to power the county.
Along with tidal power, ocean current, and ocean thermal energy, wave energy is one of the four main oceanic power technologies. In contrast to the other three, wave energy is generated by devices moving between the tips and troughs of successive waves. As wave energy technology continues to grow, those at the CEC are hoping to launch a pilot project that could lead to energy independence for the county. (Currently, fossil fuels generate roughly 70 percent of the nation’s power.)
Wave energy conversion has the potential to provide electricity at a low cost as well as provide revenue to the government. The idea is still in its early stages, but according to Roger Bedard, a renewables engineer at Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, the CEC’s investigation of wave power would “position California as a leader in the exploration of whether our nation should add ocean wave energy to our portfolio of electricity supply options.”
Costs are unknown at this point, but the price of the pilot project would be greatly minimized because of the built-in infrastructure represented by Platform Irene. Currently owned by Plains Exploration & Production Co. (PXP), Platform Irene’s location off the Lompoc coast would be the optimal spot for any wave device to be moored, as the platform already has a 4.7-mile electrical line back to shore, and the need for new construction would be minimal. PXP and CEC have been discussing whether a deal is possible.
Developers purportedly want to make headway with pilot programs but would rather not build from scratch. This makes Santa Barbara a good place to host one such program, said Bedard, one of the nation’s top energy experts. Compared to Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, the area of California just north of Point Conception is the ideal West Coast spot to develop wave energy, Bedard said. Even the waves at that spot are ideal because they are more uniform in height than in other areas of the Pacific. Furthermore, the region also pays higher electricity costs-California has the second-highest electricity costs in the country, only behind Hawai’i-and has good ports and larger coastal energy demands than the other three states.
Off the shores of Santa Barbara County, a potential pilot project would provide no more than four or five megawatts, which could power between 3,000 and 4,000 homes. If the total potential were ever realized, more than enough wave-generated energy could be produced to power the 150,000 households in the county today.
While a growing list of companies is developing these technologies, CEC has its eye on three of them-Ocean Power Technologies, Finavera, and Ocean Power Delivery, the last of which produces the Pelamis, the most available device made today. Three and a half meters in diameter and 150 meters long, the Pelamis lives up to its name-Greek for “sea snake”-as it is a serpentine line of connected tube sections. As it floats on the surface of the water, a power module at the front of each tube section holds two hydraulic cylinders, which are pressurized by the relative pitch and yaw between adjacent sections moving with the waves. The first commercial sale of a Pelamis occurred in 2005 to the government of Portugal.
The first wave energy device was installed in Hawaii in 2004, powering roughly five homes, and is still in operation today. Last year, Ocean Power Technologies filed an application to build a 50-megawatt plant off the coast in Oregon, the first commercial wave plant in the U.S. Three preliminary permit applications have been filed this year for wave plants in California. “The technology is coming,” Bedard said. There is no timetable for the pilot project in Santa Barbara, but CEC energy program director Tam Hunt is hoping to have pilot project devices in the water by the end of next year.