America to Trim Ocean Energy Budget; Britain Plows Ahead

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Ocean power got knocked down the list of America’s clean energy priorities when President Obama proposed slashing the research and development budget for the emerging technology by 25 percent, while giving solar, wind and geothermal a big lift.

The news elicited an adverse reaction from ocean power advocates, especially those in the Northwest, where waves and tides are seen as a more promising clean power source than offshore wind.

Their gripe? The feds are picking winners and losers from the green energy spectrum far too soon. From an editorial in the Seattle-Tacoma News Tribune:

Now’s not the time to back away from it. … Ocean power may lag other renewable energy sources in its development, but that should be all the more reason for the federal government to help underwrite exploration of its promise.

There is no denying that ocean energy is a potentially huge source of clean power.

For starters, moving water is at least 700 times denser than wind blowing at the same speed. In fact, if only 0.2 percent of energy in ocean waves could be harnessed, the power produced would be enough to supply the entire world. More practically, a new report by Pike Research estimated that ocean power could provide up to 200,000 MW of global generation capacity by 2025.

The Electric Power Research Institute claims that tidal and wave energy could meet a full 10 percent of America’s electricity demand and create tens of thousands of jobs. In the UK, the oceans could supply up to 20 percent of the nation’s power, and officials there are seeking to tap that potential.

Just last week, Britain affirmed its intentions to take ocean renewable energy from infant technology to mass market. If true, it won’t be the nation’s first go at it.

In the 1970s, the UK launched a promising wave energy research program brought on by finding solutions to the 1973 oil crisis. It was shut down by the government in 1982. Why revive the effort? The possible economic benefits are simply too big to brush off.

The British Isles have some of the world’s strongest tides and the waves. Having missed the boat on the world’s wind power boom, the UK sees ocean energy as an opportunity to corner an up-and-coming slice of the clean technology market.

Tidal power works by harnessing the energy of tides with underwater turbines. Wave power functions differently, using a power-generating device to capture the up-and-down movement of waves on the surface of the sea.

Currently, more than 300 ocean energy projects of all types are in the pipeline around the world. Several of these are in Britain, which is also home to 80 of the planet’s 100 marine energy companies.

In 2007, the world’s first commercial wave farm project went live off the coast of Portugal. Ten years in the making, it will generate 2.25 MW at peak output, enough to power 1,500 homes.

A much larger scale wave farm, the Wave Hub project, is being built in southwest Britain. The 20-MW wave energy demo will provide a high voltage cable 10 miles out to sea and will be connected to the national grid. It’s due to start operating in 2010. Off the Northern Ireland coast, the world’s first and largest commercial-scale tidal stream energy generator was laid down last year, with a capacity to generate 1.2 MW. Others are in the works across Europe.

There are currently only a handful of ocean energy projects in U.S. waters. All are in the testing phase. In October, the California Public Utilities Commission rejected a contract signed by San Francisco-based utility PG&E to purchase 2 MW of wave power from Vancouver-based Finavera Renewables. Why? Too experimental and too costly.

Indeed, construction of ocean energy projects is hugely expensive though notably operating costs are low. The race is now on for companies hoping to get a first-mover’s advantage on the technology – and come up with more cost-effective solutions.

In December, a group of coastal mayors, industrial leaders and green groups, led by the Environmental Defense Fund, urged the Obama administration to get in on the action and immediately begin testing ocean power potential. And it was just weeks ago when the U.S. Department of Interior suggested that wave power could emerge as the leading offshore energy source in the Northwest.

It’s no wonder then that Obama’s decision to yank marine energy funding came as a surprise. But it’s tough to slam the president for it. For one, his recommended budget would cut studies of wave and tidal power to $30 million from $40 million, not kill the program altogether. And in its place there will be an 82 percent increase in solar funding, a 36 percent increase in wind power funding and a 14 percent increase in geothermal funding.

Ocean energy is a compelling potential energy source, but unlike the established cleantech trifecta it still needs to be developed. And time is short.

"The next five years will be ‘make or break’ for the ocean energy business," said industry analyst Peter Asmus.

There are many serious analysts out there claiming that America could become a technology leader in ocean energy during this crucial time. Begs the question: Is team Obama cutting back its support too early?