PG&E signs first U.S. agreement to buy ocean energy
By Amanda Beck
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company became the country's first utility on Tuesday to agree to buy renewable electricity made by the ebb and flow of ocean waves.
The energy will be captured by several buoys bobbing 2.5 miles off the California coast and then transmitted to shore by an undersea cable. At peak times, the electricity will light at least 1,400 homes.
"This is a first," said Robert Thresher of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy. "It implies that someone with money and experience is willing to invest and take a chance on this technology, which could be as popular as wind technology in only a few decades."
There is enough ocean wave energy surging off U.S. coasts to match the power generated from the country's hydroelectric dams, which account for 6.5 percent of its electricity use, said Roger Bedard, a specialist at the Energy Power Research Institute.
Harnessing the power of the ocean has been difficult and power obtained from tides and waves is, to date, barely measurable, according to the International Energy Agency. Yet demand for non-carbon and sustainable energy is growing.
"We are very optimistic about the potential for wave energy," said Jennifer Zerwer, a spokesperson for PG&E, which currently produces about 12 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. "We are even interested in generating tidal energy from the San Francisco Bay."
In this small program, PG&E has agreed to buy 3,854 megawatt-hours annually from Finavera Renewables Inc., a Canadian firm building the buoy system. The two-megawatt system expected to come online in 2012 off the coast of Eureka in northern California, a particularly windy and wavy area.
Neither company would disclose how much the installation will cost, how long the contract lasts, or how much PG&E will pay for the power. Industry experts say wave energy costs about $8-$12 million per megawatt.
"We believe the price will be significantly lower than that," said Myke Clark, a spokesman for Finavera Renewables. "But the reason this agreement is important is that it proves there is a demand out there for wave energy."
Local environmentalists say they will be watching what effect the installation has on the local habitat for Dungeness crab or on the ability of whales to migrate up the coast.
"On the other hand, as an environmentalist, I also see the advantage of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels," said Pete Nichols, executive director of Humboldt Baykeeper, an environmental organization. "I would say I'm a skeptical optimist."
(Editing by Adam Tanner and Marguerita Choy)