NEWPORT BEACH — Waves at The Wedge are legendary for hurling bodysurfers into the air and sweeping tourists off their feet.
But they also have a more practical purpose: producing electricity.
A pair of Newport Beach entrepreneurs have been testing a wave-powered turbine near Newport Harbor's entrance for the past couple years. They recently approached city officials to set up a more permanent prototype, possibly off one of the city piers.
But because of strict regulations and high costs, they say it will be a long time before their generators can be used for commercial purposes in the U.S.
Mark Holmes and David New, partners in Green Wave Energy Corp., design and build their renewable energy contraptions from the Basin Marine Ship Yard, near Harbor Island. Small wind turbines and solar-paneled light poles share space with fishing trawlers, sloops and power cruisers.
"It's like our laboratory. It's where we play," said Holmes, who cited the Archimedes principle about buoyancy to describe how the wave generator floats.
Holmes, a lawyer in leather loafers, fumbled as he tied up a small support boat to the prototype, while New, who has been around boats his entire life, expertly maneuvered the mini-tugboat alongside the prototype moored nearby.
New's father opened Basin Marine in 1939, and David can lean on metal fabricators, nautical engineers and other contacts he has built over the years.
The pair met about 10 years ago when Holmes defended New in a lawsuit.
"I just come up with the weird ideas and Dave tells me if it's something we can build," Holmes said.
So far, they have tested the prototype about five times since 2009, heading about 200 yards offshore from The Wedge. Divers wrap a rope around a steel beam on a submerged shipwreck, they said.
The prototype generator is a roughly 20-foot long, 6-foot round fiberglass cylinder. It looks like a large vertical propane tank in the middle of a pontoon boat. While the pontoon platform is used to transport the test machine, the operating cylinders would float on their own.
The devices would be tethered to the bottom and each other in one long line of turbines perpendicular to incoming waves. Theoretically, the turbines would remain in place and wouldn't move with passing swells. As waves flow past the machine, water would rise and fall through the cylinder, turning the propeller.
A video on YouTube demonstrates the process.
This so-called "wave farm" would be connected to a transistor onshore through a cable, which could be buried.
One cylinder can generate about five kilowatts — enough to power the average household — in 7-foot swells. Holmes said it was much more consistent than solar technology, as wave generators don't have to contend with shade or nighttime.
The cost to generate electricity using this wave technology, Holmes said, is comparable to wind-generated power. It's more expensive than traditional hydroelectric or coal power, but generally less expensive than solar.
Environmentalists say that wave power is an alluring idea, but like wind turbines and other renewable generators, wave farms have their own impacts. They could produce electromagnetic waves that disturb whales and other sea creatures, attract wildlife to the structures floating above water, and disturb the ecosystem at the bottom of the sea with their cables.
"We are trying to approach all these projects with an open mind," said Chad Nelsen, environmental director of the Surfrider Foundation. "At the same time, they have potential impacts … there's not a lot really well known about what those effects would be."
Holmes said his group is most concerned with the propeller's danger to humans, so they plan to protect it with a screen. He downplays any environmental risks.
Environmentalists aren't the largest obstacles, he said. The time needed to overcome regulatory hurdles in the U.S., coupled with the cost to build and install, make it practically impossible to operate in the States. A one-megawatt plant, or about 200 turbines strung together, costs roughly $9 million to build and install.
Venture capitalists have been hesitant to back wave technology because it is unproven, said Matthew Jenusaitis, chief executive of OCTANe, an Orange County group that links startups with investors.
"Wave technology in California is particularly attractive because we have a ton of coastline," he said. "It's a huge amount of untapped energy, but no one has been able to effectively capture it."
To test their technology on a larger scale, Holmes and New have turned to places where governments are eager to approve — and even pay for — wave farms.
They are working with government officials to install a system in the West African country of Guinea and in the Caribbean island of St. Martin.
A wave farm operating in Portugal is considered the first commercially viable technology of this kind. Like other types of energy production, it is heavily subsidized by the government.
It's hard to find government subsidies here, Holmes said, because most agencies won't fund a technology until it's already functioning.
"If we get something into the water and it works," Holmes said, "it's all going to fall into place."