Originally published in EcoNews. This is a revised piece about the proposed PG&E wave energy project I wrote about a month or two ago.

The race to find workable alternative energy sources is heating up, and no natural resource is being left untested. So it is with the waves.

The infinite power of the Pacific Ocean could soon be harnessed for what would be the first wave-energy project in the United States – and it may happen right here in Humboldt County. But the project faces its share of challenges, mainly due to the newness of the technology.

Portugal built the world’s first “wave farm” in 2008, generating a meager 2.25 megawatts, but the project fell through due to technical and financial issues Scotland and England also have projects in the works, and utility companies across the U.S. are scrambling to find suitable locations.

Although there are a variety of ways to capture the energy of the ocean, the process generally involves using waves to drive turbines in one manner or another – kind of like how wind drives turbines on wind farms. But unlike wind power, the waves are much more predictable and pack more of a punch.

Based on current calculations, wave power has a small carbon footprint – 20 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour compared to 90 for solar photovoltaic, 105 for biodiesel, and a staggering 974 for coal. It also has a decent energy return on energy invested – 15 to1 compared to 8 to 1 for solar pv and coal, or 2 to 1 for biodiesel.

In Humboldt County, PG&E has been studying the ins and outs of launching an experimental wave energy system off the coast for the past two years. It hosted a  public meeting about this project in February in Eureka. Although PG&E has been eyeing sites up and down the coast, the good waves and harbor infrastructure put Humboldt on the company’s radar.

Making Waves

The company wisely chose to take the transparent route with this project, involving government officials, environmental groups, fishing organizations, and even surfers from the beginning. These groups have formed into a coalition – the Humboldt Working Group.

The project, called Humboldt WaveConnect, proposes to test two dozen prototype wave energy conversion (WEC) devices, supplied by three to four different manufacturers, three nautical miles off the coast of Arcata.

The devices would generate five megawatts of power, most of which would go to Eureka, for a 5-10 year period to see what environmental impacts this type of energy production would have and how economically viable it is.

These devices will feed energy to land via cables dug under the ocean bed, drilled into the shore underground, then relayed through power stations in Fairhaven.

Five megawatts isn’t much in the scheme of energy. Consider that the natural gas power plant being constructed in King Salmon is expected to generate 163 megawatts, and that’s still considered small.

PG&E claims there is the equivalent of three Diablo Canyon nuclear power plants – about 5,500 megawatts – in the waves licking the California coastline.

Economic And Environmental Worries

Although the subject of cost was addressed only vaguely at the February meeting,  federal grants have paid for the initial studies and the manufacturers and PG&E will foot part of the bill. PG&E officials estimated wave energy to cost between $6,000 to $7,000 per kilowatt, mainly due to its experimental nature. In comparison, it is $1,000 per kilowatt for natural gas and $3,000 for wind.

Some environmentalists have expressed reservations about the project.  As of yet there is very little research on how these devices affect the marine environment. Advocates worry about unforeseen environmental effects and disruptions to marine life and ecosystems, especially to salmon and whales.

Officials say that these devices would be monitored extensively to test for impacts and to make sure there’s no hydraulic oil leaking into the ocean.

Some of the loudest cries of concern have come from fishermen, particularly crabbers, who worry about how this project would impact their already struggling industry. Additionally, they are concerned about the safety of navigating their boats around these devices.

There is another unknown with this project:  the Marine Life Protection Act. Representatives from the North Coast are currently working to designate what parts of the coast will be protected, as mandated by California. If the proposed wave project area gets designated a “Marine Reserve” – the most restricted type of protection – that could derail the entire project.

As to potential benefits to Humboldt County, a big project like this will stimulate jobs, and, if this project succeeds, Humboldt could very well become a center of renewable energy research. Of course the benefits of having a viable alternative to fossil fuels in a time where the oil-based economy is about as shaky as the earth lately are obvious. Wave energy could be a step toward energy resilience for this community.

PG&E is applying to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a Draft Pilot License which, if approved in 2011, would get the ball rolling. Public hearings will be announced at that point. But it would still take two years before the project is up and running, according to PG&E.