Dawn Paley

Tides and waves could power the province

Posted in Uncategorized by dawn on 24/09/2009

By Dawn Paley for The Georgia Straight September 17, 2009.


As the climate-change crisis continues to grow, the search for alternative sources of energy is intensifying. If proponents of ocean energy have their way, B.C.’s coastal waters will become a key source of power for the province.

Energy from the ocean can be harnessed using a variety of technologies, including surface devices that capture wave power, dams built across estuaries or bays to capitalize on the tides, and slow-moving, submerged turbines. With the exception of tidal dams, these technologies are considered to be in the precommercial phase; worldwide, there are only a handful of ocean-power projects in operation today.

B.C. Hydro first investigated the possibilities of ocean energy in the 1990s. In 2001, the provincial power authority signed agreements with two wave-power companies to build two demonstration sites off Vancouver Island.

“When Hydro’s mandate was changed to work through IPPs [independent power producers] rather than develop new capacity themselves, that all came to a grinding halt,” Chris Campbell, executive director of the Vancouver-based Ocean Renewable Energy Group, told the Georgia Straight by phone from his office in Nanaimo, referring to a policy change in 2003. “A real sort of baby in the bathwater story, unfortunately.”

B.C. Hydro operates 30 hydroelectric facilities and three natural-gas power plants. Ninety percent of the electricity generated in the province comes from hydropower, so alternatives haven’t been sought as aggressively in B.C. as they have in other parts of the world.

“You look at the capital investment that went into those hydroelectric facilities—that’s similar to what’s gone into ocean-energy technologies abroad,” Brad Buckham, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Victoria, told the Straight via cellphone.

One of the main challenges in developing wave power, according to Buckham, is that it’s a “highly variable resource”. This means that, for instance, a wave-power project could have “significant” energy potential in the winter, when waves are high and long, but its potential could drop substantially in the summer months.

Environmental concerns related to the development of wave and tidal power include the potential leakage of lubricants, the impact of mooring lines and equipment on birds and sea life, and the effect on ocean currents.

The only energy project currently in the waters off B.C.’s coast is a demonstration project installed in 2006 at Race Rocks, an ecological reserve and marine protected area located 17 kilometres southwest of Victoria. That’s where Clean Current Power Systems, a Vancouver-based company, tests its deep-water tidal turbines, a proprietary technology it licensed this year to French energy giant Alstom Hydro.

“There is a very good tidal regime on our coastline, mainly because we’ve got so many islands,” Glen Darou, the president of Clean Current, told the Straight by phone from his downtown Vancouver office. “Whenever the tides squirt between islands they tend to speed up, and the velocity is what gives you the world-class sites.”

Darou estimates that, in areas with strong tides, his company’s machines can deliver electricity at a cost of less than US$0.20 per kilowatt-hour.

But moving electricity from marine environments to the grid is expensive. Buckham predicted that, within five years, Canadian-made technology will be employed in small-scale power projects that move electricity generated in the ocean to nearby communities.

Buckham and his colleagues at UVic’s Institute for Integrated Energy Systems are working on a wave-power project with SyncWave Systems, a Pemberton-based company that develops small floating units that capture the energy in waves. Their $10-million project, to be located off the coast near Tofino, received $2 million in seed money from the B.C. government’s Innovative Clean Energy Fund in April.

Like many of the players involved in developing ocean technology, SyncWave is a privately held company. The same goes for the Calgary-based New Energy Corporation, which together with the City of Campbell River plans to develop a tidal-power project at Canoe Pass, between Maud and Quadra islands.

The $6-million Canoe Pass project, which also received $2 million in ICE funding, is “more of a developmental initiative than a full-scale power project.” Campbell said. It’s expected to provide 100 kilowatts of generating capacity by the end of next year, and is being evaluated under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

In July, the B.C. Utilities Commission rejected B.C. Hydro’s 2008 Long-Term Acquisition Plan, a decision that could have forced the power authority to reconsider its plans to buy electricity from independent power producers. But Lt.-Gov. Steven Point’s throne speech on August 25 indicated the provincial government intends to push forward with private power production, including tidal power.

According to Campbell, smaller projects such as Race Rocks and Canoe Pass will show that ocean energy is a feasible alternative.

“It’s all very early days,” Campbell said. “If you don’t have the demonstration of success, generating financing is very difficult.”

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