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Catch the Wave: New Hydro Generation Comes Ashore

Promises of emissions-free power get the ball rolling, but unknowns remain.

Fortnightly Magazine - April 2007

agreement with OPT and will provide a “significant portion of the funds required to fabricate and install the first PowerBuoy at the Reedsport site.” FERC granted a preliminary permit for the project on Feb. 15, 2007.

How Much Power?

According to the Energy Information Administration, these new hydro technologies would match or even exceed the current output from traditional hydro sources: Offshore wave energy could produce up to 260 TWh/yr, while tidal, river, and ocean currents could generate more than 110 TWh/yr. FERC estimates the potential for wave and current power to be more than 350 TWh/year.

But despite the FERC permitting breakthrough, other obstacles to implementation of these new technologies remain. EPRI, in a report titled Overview: EPRI Ocean Energy Program from last September, states: “The primary barriers to wave and tidal energy technology are not technical but political: No U.S. government RD&D funding support; no U.S. government production subsidies; and U.S. government regulatory uncertainty.”

The commission is addressing the last of those three concerns, but EPRI addressed all three concerns in more depth, listing several questions that might move the discussion forward. How could the government help? EPRI suggested it could:

1. Provide leadership and funding of an ocean energy RD&D program.

2. Provide funding for a national ocean energy test center.

3. Develop design and testing standards for ocean-energy devices.

4. Join the International Energy Agency Ocean Energy Systems Implementing Agreement to collaborate on RD&D activities, and on appropriate ocean-energy policies with other governments and organizations. (Note: The U.S. has joined the IEA OES and intends to remain a member.)

5. Study provision of production-tax credits, renewable energy credits, and other incentives to spur private investment in ocean energy technologies and projects, and implementing appropriate incentives to accelerate ocean-wave energy deployment.

6. Lead activities to streamline the process for licensing, leasing, and permitting renewable-energy facilities in U.S. waters.

7. Ensure that the public receives a fair return from the use of ocean-energy resources.

8. Ensure that development rights are allocated through a transparent process that takes into account state, local, and public concerns.

Remaining Concerns

EPRI cautions that some unknowns about these new technologies remain. Exclusive site access for project developers using technologies still in their infancy “could result in sites being tied up for years of experimental iteration before commercial-scale power is produced.” EPRI suggests that merit-based competition could be made a condition for exclusive licenses. EPRI also expresses concern about the environmental impacts of these new hydro technologies. The lack of experience with them in natural waters drives the concern, but some experts suggest this can be addressed by monitoring commercial-scale units deployed in pilot arrays before a full buildout commences.

Nevertheless, the organization is committed to the development of new hydro technologies. “Our view is simple—a diversified and balanced energy supply alternatives in our national portfolio makes for a robust and reliable electricity system, and we ought to look at all the alternatives, including clean and renewable wave and tidal power,“ says EPRI Ocean Energy Leader Roger Bedard.

FERC continues to seek comments on three proposed