Wave Energy: Politically Attractive These Days, But Still Has Lots To Prove

The fallout from the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has politicians who previously supported oil prospecting off the United States’ coasts running for cover. Left-leaning pundits have been quick to ridicule the deafening silence coming from the conservatives who little more than a year ago turned the phrase “drill baby drill” into a political mantra.

However, centrists who were cautiously backing limited expansion of offshore drilling have also found themselves on shaky political ground. Florida Governor Charlie Crist, running for a senate seat as an independent, he made calling for increased offshore drilling “as long as it was done cleanly and safely.” In California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger publically announced a compromise plan worked out between several environmental groups and Houston-based oil company Plains Exploration & Production that would have allowed the first new drilling off the California coast in 40 years.

Politics is a zero sum game, and while erstwhile supporters of drilling are busy backpedalling, supporters of alternative offshore energy technologies are watching their political stock rise. Politicians like San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a longtime proponent of wave energy and candidate for lieutenant governor of California, once seemed quixotic for their support of wave energy projects. Now they have an opportunity to paint themselves as prophetic. Last February Newson had trouble drumming up much mainstream enthusiasm when the city of San Francisco submitted a preliminary permit application to the federal government to develop a wave power system projected to generate between 10 to 30 megawatts of electricity and 100 fulltime jobs for San Franciscans. Now his environmental policies have , and his run for statewide office has new momentum.

Private companies with their finger in the political pie are also jockeying to promote their investment in wave energy. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the utility that provides electricity to the northern two thirds of California, in the state. The company is the top corporate contributor to statewide political causes, pumping $28.5 million into initiatives on California’s upcoming June ballot. PG&E has also been quick to tout its involvement with wave energy projects as evidence of its progressive politics. In 2007 the company inked a deal to buy two megawatts , making it the first utility in the United States to buy wave energy. It is also busy publicizing its recent permit application for a federal license to build a project with an estimated cost of more than $50 million off of the northern California coast. According to the company the project could be generating five megawatts of electricity by 2014.

Ironically, PG&E could face a different kind of political fight in its latest wave power endeavor. The area eyed by the company for its wave power project are prime Dungeness crab fishing waters, and fisherman are worried that the project . Local fishermen have already retained counsel to negotiate with the utility, and PG&E will have to tread lightly if it wants to project to build political capital and burnish its green credentials.

Of course, despite the new opportunity for supporters to portray wave energy as an alternative to offshore drilling, technological problems still trump political ones. No commercial wave farms exist in the United States, and Californian politicians and business leaders need look no further than Oregon to see large wave energy projects sidelined by economic and technological factors. In February Oregon Wave Energy Partners let its permit for a proposed 100 megawatt wave energy project off the . Though the company filed to reinstate its permit in April, it is now focused on a project one twentieth the size off of Reedsport, Oregon.

The downsizing of the company’s ambitions underscores the real pitfalls of touting wave energy as an alternative to offshore drilling. Currently the productivity of wave farms does not rival the potential of offshore oil. Unless the political fallout from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill translates into a favorable regulatory climate for offshore alternatives, wave energy may remain a better political symbol than actual source of electricity.

Image: iStockphoto

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