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Ocean power surges forward

Wave power and tidal power are still experimental, but may be little more than five years away from commercial development.

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Three miles off the craggy, wave-crashing coastline near Humboldt Bay, Calif., deep ocean swells roll through a swath of ocean that is soon to be the site of the nation's first major wave-power project.

Like other renewable energy technology, ocean power generated by waves, tidal currents, or steady offshore winds has been considered full of promise yet perennially years from reaching full-blown commercial development.

That's still true – commercial-scale deployment is at least five years away. Yet there are fresh signs that ocean power is surging. And if all goes well, WaveConnect, the wave-energy pilot project at Humboldt that's being developed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), could by next year deploy five commercial-scale wave systems, each putting 1 megawatt of ocean-generated power onto the electric grid.

At less than 1 percent of the capacity of a big coal-fired power plant, that might seem a pittance. Yet studies show that wave energy could one day produce enough power to supply 17 percent of California's electric needs – and make a sizable dent in the state's greenhouse gas emissions.

Nationwide, ocean power's potential is far larger. Waves alone could produce 10,000 megawatts of power, about 6.5 percent of US electricity demand – or as much as produced by conventional hydropower dam generators, estimated the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the research arm of the public utility industry based in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2007. All together, offshore wind, tidal power, and waves could meet 10 percent of US electricity needs.

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