That potential hasn't gone unnoticed by the Obama administration. After years of jurisdictional bickering, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Department of Interior last month moved to clarify permitting requirements that have long slowed ocean energy development.
While the Bush administration requested zero for its Department of Energy ocean-power R&D budget a few years ago, the agency has reversed course and now plans to quadruple funding to $40 million in the next fiscal year.
If the WaveConnect pilot project succeeds, experts say that the Humboldt site, along with another off Mendocino County to the south, could expand to 80 megawatts. Success there could fling open the door to commercial-scale projects not only along California's surf-pounding coast but prompt a bicoastal US wave-power development surge.
"Even without much support, ocean power has proliferated in the last two to three years, with many more companies trying new and different technology," says George Hagerman, an ocean-energy researcher at the Virginia Tech Advanced Research Institute in Arlington, Va.
Wave and tidal-current energy are today at about the same stage as land-based wind power was in the early 1980s, he says, but with "a lot more development just waiting to see that first commercial success."