Company Closes Natural Gas Plant, Embraces … Wave Energy?

New plants opening? Sure, all the time. But you don’t hear very often these days about natural gas-fired power plants closing. That alone makes the demise of the half-century-old Morro Bay Power Plant on the Central Coast of California unusual.

But there’s another oddity to this story: The owner of the plant is interested in taking advantage of the existing transmission at the site with an ocean wave energy project.

The aging 650-MW power plant was no longer economically viable. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The 650-MW Morro Bay power plant was in need of expensive updating, owner Dynegy said. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

This is what Dynegy, a Houston company, told the San Luis Obispo Tribune: “We’d like to be a participant in the wave energy process,” Alan Padgett, the company’s managing director of commercial operations at the plant, said. “We’re looking into whether the technology is viable.”

Before we dig into that, first a word on what made the natural gas power plant no longer viable: It was among 19 coastal power plants in California that used “once-through cooling,” sucking in and spitting out massive amounts of seawater in its operations. “In the process, millions of fish, larvae, eggs, seals, sea lions, turtles, and other creatures are killed each year because they are either trapped against screens or are drawn into the cooling system where they are exposed to pressure and high heat,” according to the state [PDF]. In recent years the plant had been reduced to providing peaking power and it was facing a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline for implementing upgrades that would vastly reduce its use of seawater. Rather than go that route, Dynegy decided to shutter the plant.

Enter wave energy. On the one hand, bravo! But a dose of skepticism might be in order here. Because if there’s one thing we know about marine energy, there are a million great ideas floating around (or submersed, or semi-submersed….), but very few have shown the ability to make it into the water and produce energy. And basically no wave or tidal stream device has ever moved from demonstration to deployment at a meaningful scale, although some are on their way toward that goal in Europe.

Here in the U.S., marine and hydrokinetic watchers thought a breakthrough was going to happen in Oregon in 2012 when Ocean Power Technologies, with the fervent support of the state, appeared all set to put a massive power-generating buoy in the water, to be followed soon (according to the plan) by another nine grid-connected buoys, adding up to 1.5 megawatts in generating power. We were on pins and needles. It was finally happening! “All eyes are on the O.P.T. buoy,” Jason Busch, the executive director of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, told the New York Times in a big story that presented the OPT Reedsport project as a coming-of-age for wave power.

But the buoy never was installed, for reasons that are wrapped up in a fuzzy shroud of technical, financial and regulatory issues.

And look at Verdant Power’s tidal turbine project in the East River in New York City. It’s progressing, but only after years and years of work, dating back to the first successful testing of a prototype in 2002. It wasn’t until 2012 that they had a commercial licence.

The point being: These devices are totally new, totally untested and totally hard, even for experienced companies, and the regulatory issues are always knotty. The idea that a company called GWave, which does not have a website that I can find, is going to come in and bring wave energy to the Central Coast in a few short years strikes me as crazy talk. Yet that’s what we’re hearing. From the Tribune again: “Stoddard, of GWave, said that a conservative estimate for when the project could be implemented is 2017, possibly 2016. The farm would provide local jobs, though specific numbers haven’t been calculated, he said.”

Hey, it’s a lovely dream. Wave power is really cool, and someday it might bust through. I hope so! But for now, let’s be realistic.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.