The report for the California Energy Commission and the Ocean Protection Council looked at the possible socioeconomic and environmental effects of the infant industry, including what it might mean for fisheries and coastal habitat.
”Site selection and project scale are critical factors in anticipating these potential effects,” the report reads. Depending on their size and location, the study reads, commercial and sport fisheries might be impacted, but new projects would yield construction and operations jobs for nearby communities.
But projects could also interfere with wave shoaling and beach building by stripping some energy out of waves, and that in turn could affect species from the high tide line out to the continental shelf. The buoys or other structures designed to convert wave power to electricity are also likely to act like artificial reefs where reef-related fish would congregate, the report reads, a change from what would typically occur in the open ocean.
Still, the report concludes that there aren’t any dramatic impacts expected, and recommends that the push to develop projects proceed carefully, listing a slew of research that should be done to help understand the potential for problems.
Greg Crawford, an oceanographer with Humboldt State University and an author of the paper, said that much depends on what type of wave projects are employed. ”This stuff needs to be approached holistically,” Crawford said. While some wave energy projects are beginning to be used around the world, there is little information on how durable they are over the long term. As Crawford pointed out, they are deployed in particularly difficult and treacherous environments.
The report recommends starting small, both in the laboratory and with small-scale projects to help begin to understand the effects they might have when deployed on an industrial scale.
The Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has won authorization from the federal government to study several areas off the Humboldt and Mendocino coasts, but the company recently ran into what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle from state utilities regulators on another project off Trinidad. In October, the California Public Utilities Commission denied the first wave power project it has ever considered, on the grounds that the Trinidad Head proposal isn’t viable, and the contract price to sell the power is too expensive.
A feud of sorts over final jurisdiction on wave energy projects persists between the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Mines and Minerals Service. And it’s not clear exactly what agency would make the determination of whether the costs of projects outweigh their benefits, said HSU economist Steve Hackett, another author of the study.
”I think it’s a very daunting situation for the public utilities or a power company to take on,” Hackett said.
While environmental issues will be hashed out in an environmental analysis, economic effects should also be considered, Hackett said. That includes the detriments to a struggling fishing fleet and the upside of jobs from energy projects, he said.
Bill Tomar, PG&E senior program manager that heads up its ocean wave program, said the report will be an important document in moving forward with the Humboldt and Mendocino efforts. He said he’s not daunted by the report’s findings, and compared the potentially high price of wave power today with the once-high price of wind power 20 years ago.
Tomar said it will be worth it to the company to develop the initial projects to move it toward an economy of scale so that it can be included in its portfolio of other renewable energy sources like solar, biomass and geothermal.
”We believe this will accelerate the actual maturation of the industry,” Tomar said of the Northern California projects.
The report is available online at http://www.resources.ca.gov/copc/docs/ca_wec_effects.pdf.