Cal Poly institute to explore sites for wave energy testing facility

Cal Poly's Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy is looking at two California sites to study the feasibility of connecting wave energy plant to state’s grid

nwilson@thetribunenews.comJanuary 13, 2014 

A Cal Poly-related study that could help shape the future of wave energy will explore two possible test sites over the next year.

Cal Poly’s Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy has identified locations, both five miles offshore, in northern Santa Barbara County and Humboldt County.

The institute, established by former Sen. Sam Blakeslee, has been awarded a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to assess the feasibility of a grid-connected wave energy test site.

Wave energy is a relatively new and developing field of research that involves using turbines to extract energy from the fluid flow of the ocean.

Blakeslee, who holds a geophysics degree from UC Berkeley and previously worked as a research scientist with Exxon, is the principal investigator on the year-long study.

“If developed, wave energy could significantly reduce greenhouse gases, and reduce the importation of hydrocarbons from dangerous places in the world, as well as drive California jobs,” Blakeslee said. “It’s potentially one of the lowest impact renewable energy solutions — maybe more appealing than solar or wind.”

A future project could serve nearly 5 million households each year.

With funding authorizations from Congress, the Department of Energy intends to allocate $25 million to $50 million toward a national wave energy testing facility once a suitable site is determined. California is competing with Oregon and Washington, as well as Eastern seaboard states.

“One of the main challenges of making wave energy work is that an enormous amount of testing needs to occur in a deep marine, real-world setting,” Blakeslee said. “A test site would allow manufacturers to test different systems and plug into this offshore laboratory to define, improve and develop wave-energy tools so they’ll one day be commercial.”

Offshore wave energy sites exist in other countries, including England and Australia, and a large-scale project in Scotland is scheduled for completion in 2017.

Closer look at the study

The Cal Poly study will examine the suitability of the prospective ocean areas, gauging whether waves are adequately powerful and consistent without too much ocean turbulence.

The institute’s report, which will be submitted to the Department of Energy after a year of research, will also examine costs and impacts to the environment and fishing.

A viable facility one day could generate 7,500 megawatts of electricity, more than three times the capacity of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, and serve 4.75 million households, according to Will Toman, one of the researchers on Blakeslee’s team.

The test facility will generate about 10 to 20 megawatts in power, serving about 12,000 homes, Toman said. All of the power generated at the possible Central Coast site would be sold to nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Toman, a former Pacific Gas and Electric renewable resource department manager, previously worked on locating wave energy sites.

Toman, who now works for the for-profit company Pacific Marine Renewables, said the northern Santa Barbara site under consideration is five miles off the coast of Vandenberg Air Force Base near the oil-producing Platform Irene.

The study would look into potentially using existing submarine electrical cables to transmit the energy ashore from Platform Irene; telecommunications lines in place could send data for research purposes.

Toman says use of the existing cables would save an estimated $18 million to $20 million.

Platform Irene is owned by Freeport-McMoRan Energy. The study will gauge the possibility for co-use of the platform’s power cables and an electrical substation ashore, which connects to the PG&E grid.

The Cal Poly institute’s feasibility study also will examine the possibility of installing new cables at the northern Santa Barbara County offshore location, separate from Platform Irene, as well as at the Humboldt County site, an area already considered previously by PG&E’s abandoned Humboldt Wave Connect project.

“It makes sense to have a test facility in California because something like half of the population lives within 100 miles of the coastline,” Toman said. “Putting this somewhere, let’s say Alaska, or the Pacific Northwest, wouldn’t serve as many people.”

Cal Poly electrical engineering faculty member Dale Dolan said he’ll conduct research for the study on set-ups for connecting and dispersing the power.

Dolan said students could have some involvement with assessing the data, including gathering information on marine species in the ocean areas considered.

But the bulk of the technical work will be conducted by faculty and the scientific experts on the team.

“The students might be able to inventory different species in the area,” Dolan said. “We haven’t made any specific student assignments yet. … It’s a very significant piece of work that’s great to have here on our campus.”

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