Wave Energy off the Mendocino Coast?
Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

Big waves off the Mendocino HeadlandsDuring my 6+ years as an innkeeper at Agate Cove Inn, I spent a lot of time staring out at the ocean. Sometimes the ocean would be like glass, but this was rare. There is almost always some kind of wave action out there. I was lucky to safely watch 28-foot waves on multiple occasions, and these times leave no doubts about the power of the ocean.

This potential source of energy is now being examined by two large enterprises, who are trying to stake a claim in exploiting this new energy source off the Mendocino Coast: PG&E, which filed a plan back in February, and now Chevron. It’s also being fought by the city of San Francisco, which is making the dubious assertion that “the actions of currents, patterns of marine migration, and channels of navigation can easily transfer an impact in one area of water off the California coast to adjacent areas of coastline.” I might buy it if San Francisco was close, but it’s 150 miles away — it looks like they just want a piece of the pie (or the city’s lawyers aren’t busy enough). The city has asked FERC to not grant any pending permits (about 15) for wave energy sites, and apply greater scrutiny to those already granted (about 30).

These permits are the equivalent of a mining claim, which keeps all others out of the area — whether or not anything is done to develop the area. George Reinhardt, an activist from Fort Bragg, says that “For years, the energy and auto companies have been buying renewable energy innovations only to bury them. Their record is terrible.” Reinhardt believes in a cooperative approach to wave energy development, and so he eschews legal action for better oversight.

The bottom line is that these projects hold out the promise of nearly free energy with zero carbon emissions — a powerful thing in this day and age. There are valid concerns about the local impact of these installations, but they also offer great promise. The ocean is an incredible resource for the Mendocino Coast, with a lot of fishing and whalewatching going on. It is of vital importance that these proposed projects meet with community approval, since we also have a stake in these things being developed properly.

The PG&E filing says that they aim for 4 megawatts in the first stage, and up to 40 megawatts in the second stage. The study area starts off Ft Bragg, reaching north for 17 miles. The proposed area is 4 miles wide, starting about a half mile from shore. The Chevron application calls for a smaller area: from Pt Cabrillo (2 miles north of Mendocino) to a point halfway between Little River and Albion to the south. The area would be between 1 and 3 miles off shore. Chevron estimates between 2-60 megawatts of production.

There are a lot of questions about these plans, and I hope they get asked. What will be the impact on the 20,000 migrating California Grey Whales? Since the whales stay pretty close to the shore, they would have to go around the floating sections of these plants. Is that just an inconvenience, or would it be more? If it forces the whales farther offshore, then we won’t get to see them during the migration. When the whales return with their newly-born calves, they tend to hug the shoreline. What happens if they can’t do that?

Another potential impact could be on commercial fishing boats, who would suddenly have large swaths of ocean off-limits to them. This would also apply to the sportfishing boats that take people out on fishing and whalewatching cruises.

It is interesting to note that neither PG&E nor Chevron consulted local governments about their plans before filing for permits. Regardless of the potential value of these plants, I would consider this to be “poor form.” The Mendocino Whale Wars of the 70’s showed that an engaged (and possibly enraged) population can stop things like this. It seems like common sense to develop local awareness and support first, but as we’ve all seen, common sense is uncommon — especially when large corporations are involved. Kudos to George Reinhardt for helping to jumpstart the local dialog about these applications!

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I hope that we find them before things get built. If the negative effects can be mitigated, then these energy plans represent a huge potential for the coast and the world. Let’s find out!

Thanks to the Mendocino Beacon’s Frank Hartzell for his in-depth reporting on these permits and their local ramifications.

One Response

  1. Thanks for the great digest of this unfolding issue.

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