Ocean waves power a prototype generator in Newport Beach
Waves at the Wedge are legendary for hurling bodysurfers into the air and sweeping tourists off their feet.
But the walls of water that rise up at the end of the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach also could serve a far more utilitarian purpose: producing electricity.
A pair of Newport Beach entrepreneurs have been testing a wave-powered turbine near the famed bodysurfing spot for years and have now approached city officials for permission to set up a more permanent prototype, possibly off one of the city’s two piers.
But because of strict regulations and high costs, Mark Holmes and David New, partners in Green Wave Energy Corp., say it will be a long time before their generators can be used for commercial purposes.
The prototype generator is a roughly 20-foot-long fiberglass cylinder that looks like a large vertical propane tank that would float on the water’s surface.
Such cylinders would be tethered to the ocean floor and connected to one another, forming a long line perpendicular to incoming waves. Theoretically, they would ride up and over the passing waves, which would spin the turbines and produce power.
This “wave farm” would be connected to a transistor onshore through a cable, which could be buried.
One cylinder could generate about five kilowatts — enough to power an average household — in 7-foot swells. Holmes said harnessing ocean waves is far more reliable than solar technology, as wave generators don’t have to contend with such inconveniences as overcast skies or nighttime hours.
The technology has been both intriguing and vexing.
Federal energy regulators have given a Fountain Valley firm permission to begin a three-year study looking at the feasibility of installing thousands of electricity generators a mile off San Onofre State Beach, with the power moved to shore near the San Onofre nuclear power plant.
But the company’s president, Chong Hun Kim, said it would be years before the project could be operational.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. last year suspended its efforts to build a wave-energy pilot project near Eureka in Northern California, citing high costs and hard-to-obtain permits. Plans to build three wave farms off Sonoma County are stalled while officials look for $1.75 million to pay for a feasibility study. San Francisco has proposed putting wave-powered generators into the ocean to provide electricity for the city, though nothing is yet in place.
Holmes and New design and build their renewable energy contraptions at a Newport Beach shipyard where 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, a lawyer.
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, about 200 yards offshore from the Wedge.
Environmentalists say that wave power is an alluring idea, but as with wind turbines and other renewable energy generators, some of their effects could be harmful. Wave farms might 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 obstacle, he said. The time needed to overcome regulatory hurdles in the U.S., coupled with the cost to build and install, make wave farms practically impossible to operate in the country. A one-megawatt plant, or about 200 turbines strung together, would cost 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 start-ups 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 systems in the West African country of Guinea and off 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.