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Waves of the Future 

Plans to harness the ocean's power raise questions from biologists, surfers and even philosophers. After all, can you own the sea?


Just off the Sonoma County coast, floating fleets of wave-powered generators could soon begin bolstering the local grid with clean electricity, if the plans of the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) go smoothly. In April, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) accepted the agency's permit application for launching an experimental wave energy project at three marine sites between Jenner and Sea Ranch. The next step for the agency is to submit an environmental impact report, and if FERC approves the final proposal, hundreds of marine generators could become part of the near-shore seascape in as little three years.

But SCWA, which is pursuing a goal of going carbon-neutral by 2050, is likely to see opposition to the renewable energy project, modeled loosely after wave farms off the coasts of Scotland and Portugal. Already, fishermen are questioning how navigation and ocean access might be impacted near or within the wave arrays which will each occupy swaths of sea as large as 20 square miles and between one-half and three miles from shore, and others have raised concerns about how the generators could impact the marine ecosystem and wildlife. Likely, there will be no access.

At the Farallon Institute, president and research scientist Bill Sydeman believes the subsurface cables, noise and electromagnetic fields associated with the wave arrays could be problematic for migrating gray whales, perhaps steering them off their migration routes or even causing collisions. Above the water, navigational warning lights on the generators may attract or otherwise disturb birds, he says.

Cordel Stillman, SCWA capital projects manager, says the county is preparing an environmental impact report that will address all concerns. Many parties have objected to the wave energy plan for reasons which may or may not eventually prove to be valid concerns, says Stillman.

The wave energy farms are likely to be restricted zones for boaters, and members of the local fishing fleet have mixed feelings. Zeke Grader, director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association, says the fishing industry has a pointed interest in seeing alternative energy sources begin to replace the power that currently comes from "fish-killing dams," which have impacted the state's salmon runs in particular. The wave farms, however, could displace fishermen from favored fishing grounds and force them to take circuitous routes, making travel time longer and perhaps more dangerous.

"We've said no to offshore oil and gas drilling in California, and that was the right thing to do," Grader says. "Now we have to see if we can generate wave energy while protecting access to fishing and without creating navigational hazards."

Experts have estimated that the generators will absorb between three and 15 percent of the power in passing waves, producing a "wave shadow" in the lee of the generators. These wave shadows will span outward behind each apparatus, dispersing and diluting the reduction in wave power across a broad length of shoreline. With hundreds or thousands of generators contributing to the effect, however, the energy reduction of the breakers could be substantial. This, says John Largier, a professor of oceanography at UC Davis and a researcher at the Bodega Marine Lab, will affect the mechanics and the biology of the surf zone, perhaps especially so along beaches or in other depositional environments, like muddy-bottomed estuaries or river mouths.

"A lot of the coast's ecosystems really need waves," Largier says. "Barnacles, for example, that are high in the surf zone might dry out on the rocks if that splashing effect is reduced just a little. Just a slight change could tip the balance."

Many North Coast rivers, like the Russian, remain closed by a sand berm for much of the year. Migrating salmonids require periodic breaches of the barrier to enter and exit these river systems, but in the absence of heavy waves, a river mouth could potentially remain closed during a crucial migration time.

But of all the groups with an interest in seeing Pacific swells touch bottom and break on the shore, surfers may have the greatest personal investment and most substantial reason to fear the effects of the wave farms.

"The wave arrays that they establish and where they put them could block the south swell and diminish wave size," says Mike Frey, chairperson of the Sonoma County chapter of Surfrider, a California-based nonprofit. "That's our somewhat selfish standpoint, but cutting down on wave height and speed could really diminish the experience [of surfing]. A 10 percent reduction of strength might not seem like much, but it could make the difference between a place being surfable or not."

Frey and other surfers also wonder how the generators may inadvertently excite great white sharks, known by researchers to respond behaviorally to electromagnetic activity in the water.

But even as the conversation of the pros and cons gains volume, wave power technology remains in its early infancy and no one yet knows how exactly the wave arrays will work. Several dozen companies are currently vying for the contract to produce the still very hypothetical generators, but four types of machines show particular promise. One, the "oscillating water column device," features a cylinder that fills with water as each wave passes, forcing air through a turbine. Another model, the "attenuator," is an elongated series of multi-segmented buoys that float on the surface parallel to the path of the waves. "Point absorbers" float on the surface and absorb wave energy regardless of the direction of origin. And "overtopping devices" float facing oncoming waves, which pour into an open basin as each swell crests, forcing internal turbines into motion.

Richard Charter, a government-relations consultant with Defenders of Wildlife, has spent three decades fighting offshore-oil-drilling interests and believes firmly in the need for alternative energies, but he says that the corrosive power of saltwater is sure to be a tremendous challenge toward establishing successful wave farms. Even the waves themselves could overwhelm the generators, damaging them or ripping them from place.

"Can this technology survive our worst winter storms?" Charter asks, recalling watching a 90-foot breaker explode over a Sonoma County cliff in early 1982 and wash an occupied sedan into a field upslope.

A so-called wave rush has surged over California's North Coast in recent years as such corporations as Chevron and PG&E have applied for permits to build wave farms off Humboldt and Mendocino counties. Sonoma County leaders, meanwhile, have watched this encroachment of big businesses onto coastal waters and decided that if anyone would apply for a permit to build wave generators off the Sonoma Coast, the county itself would do so. Thus, SCWA quickly stepped up to apply for a permit in December, 2007.

Three months later, FERC rejected the application, which had asked for permission to develop the entire coast of Sonoma County. The agency returned to the drawing board and drafted a smaller-scale plan, isolating three sites between Jenner and Sea Ranch on which to attempt the wave farms. Submitted in February, this application was accepted in April and the preliminary permits approved this month.

The zoning and privatizing of the ocean for industrial purposes has resulted in a new concept called "marine spatial planning," in which authorities, coastal residents, fishermen and other stakeholders must decide what areas are appropriate for marine industries. Commercial fisherman Mark Neugebauer doesn't like it one bit.

"Nobody should own the open ocean," says Neugebauer, who once lived in Bodega Bay but now operates out of Fort Bragg. Here, PG&E's recently proposed wave array threatened to occupy one of the best and safest Dungeness crab fishing grounds in the region, though plans for the project have desisted in the last six months. "If they're going to close the water for the wave farms, maybe they're just going to try and close it next for the oil companies," Neugebauer.

The government is not particularly keen on fueling wave energy research, as seen recently when federal stimulus money was diverted to other renewable technology development, leaving wave energy planners in search of private venture capital. That, too, is scarce, says Charter, as the slumping economy drags its feet.

"If you can't get a mortgage on a house now, just try convincing someone to lend you money for an experimental eggbeater floating on the ocean."

Stillman says SCWA will pursue the project with caution. A series of public discussions and scientific investigations are sure to take place as project managers and coastal stakeholders weigh the pros and the cons of anchoring colonies of wave generators to the seafloor.

"If things go smoothly, we're three years away from a pilot project," Stillman says. "But if it doesn't pan out environmentally or commercially, we'll drop it like a hot rock."

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