Pacific Gas & Electric has unveiled crucial details about its proposed wave energy project off the coast of Vandenberg Air Force Base — a major step toward alternative electric power generation for the region.
PG&E said the project could be operational by 2014, generating as much as 100 megawatts of power and providing permanent non-fossil-fuel power for the base, one of the largest employers in Santa Barbara County.
PG&E spokesperson Kory Raftery said a five-megawatt prototype effort in Humboldt County has paved the way for the project off the shores of Point Arguello.
“The lessons we’re learning on the pilot project in Humboldt County will help us make more informed decisions on the Central Coast project,” Raftery said. “We’ve been following the Humboldt model closely.”
PG&E will install four different technologies at the short-term Humboldt facility in order to decide which device would be most effective in Santa Barbara County. The devices capture the ocean’s energy and transmit it through an undersea cable to land, where the energy is conditioned and fed to the electric grid.
“It’s too early to tell what those technologies might be, but we’re basically asking energy companies to submit ideas about what we could do there,” Raftery said. “We’re still just collecting applications.”
Raftery said the location of the project had many advantages, including nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base, which has an existing power grid that can handle a large interconnection. The base also has launch facilities that would allow large wave energy devices to be deployed easily into the ocean.
The wave energy potential off California’s coastline is approximately 5,500 megawatts, according to a study by the Electric Power Research Institute, and PG&E hopes the 100-megawatt Central Coast project will tap that potential.
Although the license would allow PG&E to generate up to 100 megawatts, Raftery said the project will likely be phased. The multi-stage approach will start with a small initial phase and potentially build up into a larger facility.
“We’re not going to put 100 megawatts in the water right off the bat,” Raftery said. “It’s going to come in pieces and segments so the progression is in harmony with local considerations.”
The wave energy setup would supply Vandenberg and a portion of Santa Barbara County with renewable, carbon-free electricity.
“Electrons find the nearest appliance,” Raftery said. “So while customers in the city of Santa Barbara may not write their checks to PG&E, they’ll all benefit from the clean energy that we’re putting into the mix.”
In December, PG&E applied for a permit for the Central Coast project from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the umbrella agency for wave energy project approval in the nation.
“Until [approval], we’re in a holding pattern,” Raftery said. “Everything is still the same. The lines on the map haven’t changed, and the Air Force is still on board. Once we obtain the permit from FERC, we’ll set up more stakeholder groups and dig into doing the research.”
PG&E expects permit approval by spring of this year. “We don’t really have a plan B,” Raftery said.
He added that the real work starts after the project is approved. That’s when PG&E will start ramping up its outreach projects, conducting more extensive studies at the site and begin offshore mapping. There will also be futher studies on wave management, extensive research into historic wave capability and production and environmental impact reviews at the state, local and federal levels.
PG&E has already brought on two large consulting firms to help with the project; Denver-based CH2Mhill is handling the environmental feasibility studies and Virginia-based SAIC will assist with the actual technology.
The Business Times reported in December that PG&E met with a number of local elected officials, including Santa Barbara County supervisors, and set up preliminary meetings with environmental groups including the Surfrider Foundation.
PG&E launched its wave energy program in 2007 by studying two potential sites in Humboldt and Mendocino counties. The California Public Utilities Commission and U.S. Department of Energy provided $6 million for the two sites, but the Mendocino site was later deemed infeasible.
The goal of the Central Coast project, Raftery said, is to produce reliable electric power with no impact on coastal activities.
With the wave energy permit application, PG&E has two large regulatory undertakings under way for the Central Coast.
Last 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.