SERC Studies Potential Wave Energy Test Center Off California Coast


The wave power resource off the coast of California and southern Oregon is substantial. Source: NREL’s MHK Atlas

Ocean waves represent a vast untapped energy resource that could someday become an important component of a diversified renewable energy portfolio. Each year, the equivalent of California’s total demand for electricity passes through our coastal waters as wave energy. Because of this enormous potential, there is a budding wave power industry looking to harness this power by installing wave energy conversion devices in the open ocean.

The wave energy industry is still relatively young. No one is certain what particular type of mechanism will extract energy from the waves at the least cost. There are dozens of manufacturers with a variety of device designs in various stages of development and, while wave tanks can be used to test scale models, open-ocean testing is critical to proving these devices under real-world conditions. Since the infrastructure and permitting requirements to install devices in the ocean are expensive, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is seeking to fund a wave energy test facility on the West Coast in order to reduce these barriers and jump start the technology.

Right now, three sites are under consideration: Humboldt Bay, Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California, and Newport, Oregon. The DOE has funded two feasibility studies to explore the potential of each site. The California sites are under study by a partnership between Humboldt State University, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and a variety of industry experts and stakeholders at the local, state, and national levels. SERC is leading the HSU team, which includes HSU faculty, the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, the Humboldt Bay Harbor District, and HT Harvey, a local consulting firm. The Oregon site is under study by researchers from Oregon State University. By this time next year, one of the three sites will be selected by DOE to receive implementation funding.

Humboldt Bay has a number of compelling advantages when it comes to offshore renewable development. It has the only deep-water port in California north of San Francisco Bay, the wave energy resource here is among the highest in the nation, and critical grid infrastructure already exists on our coast. Indeed, Pacific Gas & Electric studied our waters carefully during their WaveConnect project, which similarly sought to create a wave power test facility. Unfortunately, that project was abandoned for various reasons in 2011. In addition, the Humboldt Bay Harbor District has recently taken title to the former Freshwater Tissue Pulp Mill and is actively developing the site as a marine research and innovation park. The site could potentially be used as a base of operations for wave energy device manufacturing, deployment, and maintenance.

It’s important to note that a test center will not move forward in Humboldt or elsewhere without a thorough community engagement process that carefully examines the potential social and environmental impacts of development. In addition, both the Vandenberg and Newport sites, which are competing with Humboldt for the test center, have their own considerable advantages.

Wherever the national wave energy test center is sited, all of the western coastal states will eventually play a role in the development of commercial-scale wave energy. This project is an excellent opportunity to put some thought into our strengths and gaps as a host site. And adding to the possibilities for offshore development, the wind energy resource off our coast is also phenomenal and offshore windpower shares most of the same requirements in terms of infrastructure and permitting. No matter how this unfolds, the work happening now is an important stepping-stone toward the greater goal of a sustainable energy future.