PG&E Abandoning Wave Power

Challenges prove too much for one of California’s largest utilities

Waves crash along the Monterey coast. (Photo: Craig Miller)

One of the nation’s more progressive electric utilities is bailing out of wave energy.

Pacific Gas & Electric is giving up its pilot projects along the California coast.

“There’s definitely still a future for wave energy,” PG&E renewable energy spokesman Denny Boyles told me in a Sacramento interview. “Our hope is that one day it will become a more viable source,” PG&E had secured development permits for three areas along the California coast but with the technology for converting wave action into electric power still in its nascent stage, the company never got as far as getting any hardware into the water. “We did several different studies,” said Boyles. “There is wave energy conversion  technology that’s out there that’s working. It’s just not at a point where it’s widespread enough for us.”

Questions remain about what will become of public funds that PG&E acquired for wave development, a blend of state and federal money totaling about $6 million. Boyles says that money was spent on research such as preliminary studies to determine the best locations for installations. PG&E had identified three pilot projects, one off the Humboldt coast and two others along central California.

We reported here a year ago — almost to the day — that visions of wave power off California were fraught with challenges. Then there were indications that things weren’t going well last fall, when PG&E suspended its WaveConnect Pilot Project, off Humboldt County.

Boyles said he hoped that the initial interest from PG&E might help nudge the technology along. Some wave power projects along the Oregon coast, by other developers, appear to be moving ahead.

Good catch: We began wondering what was up when Frank Hartzell reported in the Fort Bragg Advocate-News that PG&E had “withdrawn its last application and canceled its last preliminary permit after acquiring millions in grant money from the California Public Utilities Commission.” The story quoted from filings the company made to federal regulators in late April, asking to “surrender” its  development permits along the Central Coast.

  • Eric Brooks

    PG&E Has No Intention Of Aggressively Pursuing Clean Energy – Uses Announcements About Such Big High Tech Projects To Deflect Public Attention From Real, Community Based, Clean Energy Progress

    PG&E’s abandonment of its supposed wave power projects is no surprise. Periodically PG&E announces some new scheme to build big, speculative, high tech renewable energy projects to fool the public into believing it is a ‘green’ company, only later to abandon those proposals. PG&E even released a press announcement a few years ago that it was pursuing producing solar power in space with orbital solar collectors.

    PG&E also times such pie-in-the-sky announcements to coincide with the startups of real, community based, clean energy projects which would truly compete with its for-profit fossil fuel empire.

    PG&E (along with former mayor Gavin Newsom) began its bogus foray into ocean based power with a big press event announcing a new joint PG&E/City tidal power effort in the Golden Gate off of San Francisco, on the very same June 19, 2007 morning that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed groundbreaking legislation to start a municipal Community Choice energy project. That community project, now called CleanPowerSF, is designed to bring 51% clean renewable energy to all San Franciscans by the end of this decade, and at prices competitive with PG&E rates.

    But PG&E’s flashy announcement (complete with a slick animated color video of the tidal power design in action) grabbed the headlines and TV screens that day, completely shoving to the curb and into obscurity, a press announcement by environmental groups and the Board of Supervisors that they had just founded the Community Choice project. (PG&E’s tidal power partnership with San Francisco was unceremoniously mothballed a few months later.) PG&E is still defying the state mandate that it was to provide 20% renewable energy by 2010, and is lagging far behind the legal mandate at around 15%.

    And now, while PG&E abandons wave power projects that it never intended to build in the first place, CleanPowerSF is nearing its launch date by early next year, and both Marin and Sonoma counties also have their own Community Choice energy projects underway.

    Eric Brooks
    San Francisco Green Party

  • Al Weinrub

    Well, the opening line casts aspersions on the reliability of the entire article: “One of the nation’s more progressive electric utilities…”

    Good grief. How progressive is it to spend over $54 million in ratepayer revenues to attempt to change the California Constitution to subvert democracy and prevent competition? PG&E’s Prop 16 attack on Community Choice last year.

    Or to provide a $35 million severance package to a guy who repeatedly gave the finger to ratepayers.

    Greenwashing in action, Mr. Miller.

    And I’ll bet Chevron is one of the nation’s more progressive oil companies?

  • Craig Miller

    I have no personal interest in defending PG&E on this or any other front. Of course it’s difficult to find anything progressive in a measure like Prop 16, the ballot measure to which you refer. There’s no denying that the company has had its misadventures, especially lately.
    But as they say, everything is relative. Drive along the Pennsylvania Turnpike and you run a gantlet of billboards extolling the virtues of coal power.
    One can (as in both comments above) argue that PG&E’s clean energy efforts are more PR than reality, and that’s something that bears watching. But if you range not too far from California’s borders and see what some of the nation’s other investor-owned utilities are saying and doing, it does provide a certain amount of perspective.

  • Eric Brooks

    True Craig, however I think the key distinction to clarify, is that the only reason PG&E performs any better than similar for-profit utilities in other states, is that it is required to by state law, and therefore does not do so out of the goodness of its heart, nor out of any progressive sensibility in its business model.

    As Al Weinrub pointed out well. Prop 16 showed exactly where PG&E’s heart truly beats.

    PG&E also formed a separate Wall Street umbrella corporation to which, in 2001, it shuttled $5 billion in profits, while locally it claimed bankruptcy and sought (and won) a $28 billion bailout from the state and its ratepayers.

    And that shows with crystal clarity, what type of business model PG&E follows.

  • ap

    If this money was for technology research, it should have gone to California Universities. If it was for actual clean energy installations. It should have gone to solar installations on every sunny state, county, city property possible. We need to stop handing money to companies that have no incentive to go green. We need to serious efforts to install decentralized, locally produced, individual and community based green energy production. Enough of being raked over the coals.

    There are few places in CA where solar wouldn’t work. Every roof should have solar. And while we’re at it, each roof should also have rain capture and we also need to treat and use storm water. California needs both to get prepare for the future and get on sound financial footing. These are investments that pay for themselves.

  • http://www.kqed.org/climatewatch Craig Miller

    Good arguments, all. This is exactly the kind of exchange I love to see here.
    (@ap: In fact, PG&E may have to return some of that grant money).
    Something related to ponder: If one of PG&E’s stated reasons for bowing out is that this kind of early-stage R&D isn’t the place for public utilities, one has to wonder why they waded into it (so to speak) in the first place.