Environment Forum

California looks to catch a wave, of energy

December 12, 2009

surferBesides surfing, tourism and the ocean views, California may get another benefit from its famed coast: energy.

With shores that stretch for 745 miles along the Pacific Ocean, California could harness more than 37,000 megawatts of ocean power, or enough to supply a fifth of the state’s energy needs, according to the California Energy Commission.

On Friday, California utility Pacific Gas and Electric Co, or PG&E, took a dive in that direction. The company said it signed an agreement with the U.S. Air Force to study a wave energy project near a base and off the coast of northern Santa Barbara County. The utility is also seeking approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC.

The proposed project could harness up to 100 megawatts of electricity from waves in the Pacific. If it is built, devices would convert the wave’s energy into electricity, a submarine cable would bring it to shore, where it would feed into the electrical grid at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Any excess electricity would go to the utility’s electrical grid, which is connected to the base.

California will have to wait a few years, however, to see if wave energy will help the state meet its goal for a third of its energy needs to come from renewable resources by 2020.

The study for wave power off of the central coast will take three years and is part of PG&E’s wave energy program. The company is also looking to develop a smaller project in northern California, off the coast of Humboldt County. Together the studies will cost more than $7 million, a spokesman with PG& E said.

“Right now the wave industry is in its infancy,” said Kory Raftery, with PG&E. “It’s comparable to where wind was in the 1970s.”

Currently there are few projects around the world that generate electricity from the ocean. PG&E estimates that together they produce about 300 megawatts of power, less than a single mid-sized coal plant.

(Photo: A surfer takes air off a wave while surfing in Solana Beach, California. Photo credit: Mike Blake/Reuters)

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