A wave of interest in tidal and ocean power is building in cities and boardrooms along the West Coast.
Just last week, San Francisco and Australian energy company BioPower Systems announced plans to study the feasibility of an ocean energy project five miles off the city's coast. Leaders of the proposed Oceanside Wave Energy Project say it could provide as much as 100 MW to the city's power grid by 2012.
Closer to shore, city officials and energy companies have been exploring potential tidal power sites in San Francisco Bay, hoping to harness the powerful currents that run beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
A preliminary permit for the San Francisco Bay Tidal Energy Project — the largest proposed project of its kind off the California coast, with a potential generating capacity of 10-30 MW — is currently pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). If granted, the three-year permit would allow Golden Gate Energy Company first-priority access to conduct feasibility research on the designated site in the Bay.
The two projects are among several dozen proposed to capture tidal and ocean wave energy up and down the West Coast, including sites in Alaska, Washington and Oregon. New hydrokinetic projects have also popped up inland along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, said FERC spokesperson Celeste Miller.
The influx of permit applications for ocean and tidal projects is a recent phenomenon.
"Up until several years ago, when we started getting applications for projects down near Florida and along the Mississippi River, we didn't have any applications for this type of project," Miller said. "We've started to modify our permit process to accommodate this new technology."
For the City by the Bay, several major issues have yet to be resolved before tidal and ocean wave projects can start bringing real power to San Francisco shores. In fact, no tidal and wave projects proposed for the West Coast have advanced beyond the research stage.
Tidal Turf Wars
First, there's the turf war between public and private ownership of emerging projects. San Francisco has had its eye on energy prospects for the waters under the Golden Gate since at least 2006, when the city's Public Utilities Commission (PUC) undertook a study along with the Electric Power Research Institute, concluding that the waters under the Golden Gate provide ideal conditions for a tidal power project. The same month, the PUC said it would invest $150,000 to further research the bay's tidal power possibilities.
Soon afterward, private developers started jumping on board. In 2007, Pacific Gas & Electric signed an agreement to collaborate with the city and county of San Francisco to study the potential for tidal power projects in the bay. PG&E pledged $1.5 million — with another $346,000 promised by the city — to fund feasibility research.
Though San Francisco public officials like Mayor Gavin Newsom have shown consistent support for tidal and ocean energy projects, they have also taken part in a tense debate over whether the projects should be led by public or private actors.
In 2006, Newsom dismissed developers like Golden Gate Energy Company, saying that the city had "never taken them seriously" as contenders in the race to bring tidal power into operation.
Other city representatives, like district supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, have also been vocal about San Francisco's right to control tidal development. Mirkarimi introduced legislation in 2007 attempting to mandate public ownership of any city-funded tidal power projects in the area.
Private developers like Golden Gate Energy have signaled a willingness to cooperate.
"We're not trying to take 100 percent of anything here. We're just trying to do something that brings stakeholders in. First, we need to assure that the technology works," said John Topping, an investor who sits on the board of directors at Golden Gate's parent company, Oceana Energy.
Apart from ownership clashes, certain logistical barriers face anyone seeking to establish tidal or ocean wave power near San Francisco. Many of the bay's fastest-moving waters are in shipping lanes, precluding the installation of turbines or other technologies that might interfere with navigational paths.
"In the end, with each of these projects, you're balancing the strength of the flow of the current in a given setting, with the fact that you can't mess up the navigation channels," Topping explained.
"You have to do all the normal studies. There isn't really much risk at all to animals or fish, but you have to go through showing that as well. So in terms of actually being required to make adjustments, that's primarily going to be working around navigation channels."
Time and Money
Predictably, the process takes time and money.
Since FERC must assess the results of the developer's research, conduct environmental reviews and seek public input, license acquisition for a single project can take years.
FERC has issued just one pilot license granting permission to conduct actual construction and operation to a tidal or ocean wave energy project. But the Makah Bay project off the coast of Washington state was forced to surrender its license earlier this year, citing "the current economic climate and the restrictions on capital necessary to continue development."
Makah Bay's withdrawal leaves no West Coast tidal or wave projects that have yet moved beyond the research stage.
The slow development of hydrokinetics along the West Coast may have a simple explanation — the technology may simply be too new.
Recent years have seen promising innovations which have resulted in more than 50 different devices designed for generating energy from water movement. But most technologies are only prototypes at this point and have yet to be demonstrated on a commercial scale. As a result, the cost of energy generated from marine power technologies remains high in California — over $400 per megawatt-hour compared to other renewable energy sources, which can cost as little as $150 per megawatt-hour.
Still, stakeholders say they're optimistic.
"You just have to fast-track the process of studying something to show that it works, and then you can scale it up significantly," Topping said. "The San Francisco project is among the three most promising of the ones we're working on. I think there's a reasonable shot that it can happen."
Both public and private developers can agree on the potential benefits of harnessing energy from the waters of the Pacific and San Francisco Bay.
"The possibilities of clean, green energy produced by the ocean is very real, if we invest in the technology," Newsom wrote earlier this year.
The mayor also noted that a single ocean energy project could bring more than 100 jobs to the region. Topping points out that tidal power can go from planning to power generation much quicker than traditional power plants.
"It's a lot faster to put in a tidal energy technology than to build a nuclear plant somewhere," Topping said. "The key is to do it in enough scale that it can happen, and that in turn will bring down the price. And if we do these things on a larger scale, we can make a difference in terms of climate."