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PG&E wave project sets out into unfamiliar waters

From the T-S:

John Driscoll/The Times-Standard

Posted: 02/03/2010 01:27:13 AM PST

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EUREKA -- The Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is weeks away from submitting an application to the federal government for a first-of-its kind project to test wave energy devices off the Humboldt County coast.

The pilot project could be a proving ground for the large-scale production of energy from waves, but a host of environmental and economic concerns will have to be addressed before that can happen. At a public meeting at the Veteran's Hall Tuesday night, a working group made up of representatives from PG&E, state and federal agencies, commercial and sport fishing interests, and surfing and environmental groups outlined the promise and potential effects of new technologies.

PG&E expects to submit a pilot project license application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by Feb. 26. It will ask to test three to four different types of wave power generators in an area 1/2-mile wide and 2 miles long about 3 miles to sea roughly west of Arcata. The intense wave activity off the Humboldt coast, and the chosen area's proximity to a working harbor like Humboldt Bay, make it an ideal test site, said PG&E Senior Program Manager Bill Toman.

”It turns out, as anyone who's been to the shore here knows, we've got a lot of good waves,” Toman said.

PG&E plans to hold a bidders' conference in April at which proponents of various wave energy converter technologies would present their products to the working group. From about two dozen bidders, three or four would be selected by fall 2010 for the WaveConnect project.

If approved by FERC and the State Lands Commission -- with jurisdiction over the area in question -- PG&E could begin construction in 2012 and be operating the 5-megawatt project in 2013 and 2014. The pilot license is currently conceived to last five years, which means the project would have to be decommissioned and removed by 2018 or 2019.

Toman said that PG&E is considering asking for a 10-year license to spread out the high cost of the wave converter devices to make it more acceptable to the California Public Utilities Commission, which has to approve power purchase agreements.

Perhaps the project's most obvious impact would be to commercial crab fishing. The testing zone -- though substantially pared down from a study area of 18 miles by 1 mile -- is nonetheless in key Dungeness crab fishing grounds. Fishermen are not ready to endorse the project, citing concerns about loss of fishing opportunity, navigational hazards and traffic by boats to service the project.

”At this point, I'm just not that excited about the project because I just don't know what I'm going to lose and how I might be compensated,” said Kevin Pinto, a commercial crab fisherman who is part of the working group.

Larry DeRidder with Humboldt Area Saltwater Anglers said that the area proposed for the project is probably too far north of Humboldt Bay and too far south of Trinidad to pose a problem for sport fishers. Bill Lydgate with the Surfrider Foundation's Humboldt Chapter also said that the project is likely too far off shore to affect waves for surfing.

Agency representatives said that the project's potential impacts on endangered species, whales and other marine mammals and birds will all have to be addressed as part of National Environmental Policy Act and California Environmental Quality Act processes. The resilience of wave energy devices and their anchoring and mooring equipment will also have to be evaluated.

While the project may offer a window into the future for clean energy, Humboldt County Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace said that there will be a balancing act. While jobs may be created for research, monitoring and maintenance of the project, Lovelace said, there may be economic harm to existing fishing jobs. And while the county is supportive of green energy, he said, there may be impacts to endangered species.

”It's jobs versus jobs, environment versus environment,” Lovelace said.

In any case, the future of wave energy is unclear. Toman cited estimates that perhaps 5,500 megawatts of electricity -- more than twice the capacity of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant -- could be produced by wave energy off the California coast. While such potential could go a long way toward meeting state requirements that utilities produce more energy with renewable sources, Toman said whether wave energy plays that role will hinge in large part on this project's performance.

John Driscoll can be reached at 441-0504 or

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