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09.03.08

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Making Waves

By Gabe Meline


While presidential candidates call for alternative forms of energy and "sustainable" is the word of the year, the idea of ocean-wave buoys along the Sonoma and Marin coast continues to attract attention as a potentially viable form of energy.

Though no firm proposal is in place, the wheels have been turning toward what some are already calling a "West Coast wave energy gold rush." The county of Sonoma, in fact, has already submitted an application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to lease an area of the ocean off the Sonoma Coast to oversee wave-energy development.

Dan Howard, superintendent of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, agrees that ocean waves, like the wind and the sun, are a natural energy source which until recently has gone widely untapped. Still, the rush may be a long way off. "I would call it an experimental technology," he says. "It's safe to say, I think, it's years away from any kind of implementation."

Earlier this year, the Cordell Bank Sanctuary held a panel discussion with representatives from the buoy energy industry, the marine fisheries and environmental groups. "You start running into issues related to migrations—the grey whales, of course, are the first that come to mind," Howard says. "The fishing industry, certainly, you'd have to work something out with the local commerce if it affected vessel traffic in any way. There are lots of conversations that need to occur."

The concept of the wave-energy buoy has been implemented most successfully in Portugal, where the Agušadora Wave Park, with its snakelike buoys, built in 2005 near Pˇvoa de Varzim, has been widely hailed a commercial success. Last year in Oregon, a different prototype of buoy was tested off the coast, measuring 72 feet tall and weighing 35 tons. Using a fixed coil with a floating magnetic field, the device would generate voltage with the rising and falling of the waves as the coil moves up and down inside the magnetic field.

The idea has been gaining currency. On Sept. 23, the West Coast Governors' Agreement—a collaborative group between the governors of California, Oregon and Washington united to preserve ocean health—will host a meeting in Portland, Ore., to discuss with the public the development of wave and tidal energy activities on the West Coast. PG&E has already eyed the Mendocino Coast as a location to study hydrokinetic projects.

With all eyes on renewable energy, and with engineers working on different types of buoys, could we be on the crest of new source of energy? "I think the vast majority of people in the United States would support development of alternative-energy sources, certainly," Howard says. "How we go about doing that, and doing it in the most environmentally sensitive and safe way, is the trick."


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