In what could be a major step forward for alternative electric power generation for the region, Pacific Gas & Electric is preparing to seek approval to study a future wave energy project located off the California coast near Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The project, which could take years to make operational, would generate as much as 100 megawatts of power, providing permanent non-fossil-fueled electricity for the base, one of the largest employers in Santa Barbara County. PG&E is expected to seek the permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has been designated as the umbrella agency for wave energy project approval in the nation.
“We’ve entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Air Force to let us proceed with wave energy in that area if findings are favorable,” said PG&E spokesperson Kory Raftery. At press time, the permit application was expected to be filed on Dec. 11, and information about the project was provided to the Business Times on an embargoed basis.
During recent weeks, officials at PG&E have met with a number of local elected officials, including Santa Barbara County supervisors. They also have held preliminary meetings with environmental groups, including the Surfrider Foundation, according to people familiar with the talks. In addition, PG&E has hired SAIC and CH2Mhill, two large consulting firms, to help with technology and siting issues.
One advantage of locating the project near Vandenberg is that the Air Force base has an existing power grid that can handle a large interconnection. In addition, the base has launch facilities to allow large wave energy devices to be deployed easily into the ocean.
“Unlike other projects, if we get to that point, there would be no need to develop onshore infrastructure,” Raftery said. The 100-megawatt power generating array would be enough to supply Vandenberg and a portion of PG&E’s Santa Barbara County customer base, which includes the city of Santa Maria.
PG&E is publicizing its focus on clean energy development and recently parted ways with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over climate change policy.
The giant utility company is already studying a wave energy power station in Humboldt Bay in Northern California and has launched a Web site, www.next100.com, to promote its initiatives.
The Tri-Counties is becoming somewhat of a hub for sustainable energy.
Also near Vandenberg, Pacific Renewable Energy Generation, a subsidiary of a Spanish wind energy firm, is moving to build Santa Barbara County’s first large wind installation. Approved by county supervisors in February, the project would build as many as 65 400-foot-tall turbines on ridgelines near the Air Force base. The turbines are expected to generate 97.5 megawatts of energy, enough to power about 40,000 homes, and the electricity will be sold to PG&E through a power purchase agreement.
A couple that owns property next to the project has sued to stop it, and a hearing in that lawsuit is scheduled for March, according to the county. But the county says Pacific Renewable plans to start its first phase construction, which could include as many as 40 turbines, in late 2010 with the first turbines coming on line in as early as late 2011.
On the Carrizo Plain in the southeast corner of San Luis Obispo County, two large commercial solar plants, proposed by solar companies First Solar and SunPower, are designed to produce a combined 800 megawatts of power.
Santa Barbara County is mulling moves to build out solar power as well.
In November, a subsidiary of Edison International, which in turn owns South Coast utility Southern California Edison, asked county officials to start a conceptual review of a proposal to build a 45-megawatt solar installation in the Cuyama Valley on land that is now used to grow carrots and potatoes.
That project would ask county officials to decide for the first time whether they’re willing to take agricultural land out of production for an energy project.
For its part, the kind of wave power generation proposed for the coast near Vandenberg has been somewhat of a holy grail for clean energy advocates for decades, and there has been some small success with using wave energy devices to power sonar buoys.
Several European countries are aggressively pursuing the technology, but it remains unclear whether large-scale power generation technology will work off either the East or West Coast of the United States.
In the case of the Humboldt Bay project, PG&E expects to identify promising technologies and let third parties take the financial risk of proving that the technology works. “We are still a ways out from putting any devices in the water,” Raftery said.
The goal of the Central Coast project, he said, is to produce reliable electric power with “no significant impact on existing coastal activities.”
With the wave energy permit application, PG&E has two large regulatory undertakings underway for the Central Coast. Earlier this year it filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend the license of its twin-reactor Diablo Canyon nuclear generating station near San Luis Obispo.
“It’s exciting that our region could set precedent for our country and the world for creating a diverse power supply,” Raftery said.